John U. Bacon

Essay/Analysis: Sports Commentator

John U. Bacon has worked the better part of two decades as a writer, a public speaker, a radio and TV commentator, and a college teacher.

Bacon earned an honors degree in history (“pre-unemployment”) from the University of Michigan, and a Master’s in Education.  He also was awarded a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship in 2005-06, where he was the first recipient of the Benny Friedman Fellowship for Sports Journalism.

He started his journalism career covering high school sports for The Ann Arbor News, then wrote a light-hearted lifestyle column before becoming the Sunday sports feature writer for The Detroit News in 1995.  There he wrote long features about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, bullfighting in Spain, and high school basketball on a Potawatomi reservation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, earning numerous state and national awards for his work.

Bacon is the author of the upcoming book “Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football.”

His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

Jim Harbaugh didn't like the call.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Mens sana in corpore sano.

Sound mind in sound body.

It’s a simple philosophy, which states that exercise is good for your brain. What was revolutionary a century ago is common sense to us. It’s also the best reason to support school sports, something Americans believe in more than any other culture.

FLICKR USER MGOBLOG / FLICKR

After Tom Izzo graduated from Northern Michigan in 1977, he became the head coach of the Ishpeming High School Hematites, named for one of the minerals they mine in the Upper Peninsula. 

Once the Hematites were driving to play an arch rival, when suddenly the players started yelling, “Coach! You gotta stop the bus! It’s Suds!” Izzo replied, “What’s a ‘suds’?!”

  

The NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis, IN.
Intiaz Rahim / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

This Saturday’s Final Four should be college basketball’s showcase. It features North Carolina and Syracuse, two of the game’s greatest programs.

The North Carolina Tar Heels have won five national titles, and rank near the top of just about every measure that matters. The legendary Dean Smith, one of the most respected coaches in the sport’s history, coached the Tar Heels for 36 years, including a guy named Michael Jordan.

Coach Smith created what they call "The Carolina Way," a shorthand for playing the game right, on and off the court.

John U. Bacon

March Madness is upon us, and it’s a little madder than usual. In the first week, eight teams hit buzzer-beaters. But the real shocker, the one that sent brackets to office trashcans across the country, wasn’t even close.

Michigan State had been a top ten team most of the season, and number one for six weeks. They won the Big Ten tournament with fantastic passing and shooting, arguably the most unselfish team Tom Izzo has ever coached.  

John Beilein (left) and Tom Izzo (right).
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The madness of March is here, and Michigan and Michigan State both have big games today in the Big Ten tournament. Michigan needs to beat Big Ten champion Indiana just to get into the NCAA tournament, while Michigan State is playing for a Big Ten title, and a national title after that. 

Last year, the Wolverines looked promising -- until key players went down with injuries. The Wolverines finished ninth in the league, missing the big dance altogether, and didn’t even get an invitation to the junior high prom (also known as the National Invitational Tournament).

Playing tackle football.
Patrick Briggs / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Political writer George Will, a famously avid baseball fan, once said football combines the worst elements of American culture: violence, and committee meetings.

Football isn’t getting rid of the committee meetings, also known as huddles, but this week the Ivy League decided to reduce the violence.

Jim Harbaugh pleads his case. Michigan's head coach first arrived in Ann Arbor as a kid in 1973.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady’s team, the New England Patriots, were knocked out of the playoffs last week. But his unlikely friendship with a 43-year old Ann Arbor dishwasher is still going strong. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon heard this story a year ago, and it’s only gotten better since.

nfl football on field
Flickr user Parker Anderson / Flickr

This week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the Rams would be allowed to move from St. Louis back to Los Angeles. I realize you might not care, but you should, because we’re the ones paying for it – again. 

Stack of newspapers.
user Jon S / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Last week, MLive.com laid off 29 more employees.

On Monday, Alabama beat Clemson for college football’s national title.

These might seem unrelated to you, but not to me. I see a pattern here – and a warning for college football, if it’s smart enough to listen.

Stunned Michigan fans, the "Windmilling Kicker" from MSU, and the Green Bay Hail Mary. It was quite a year in football for Michigan.
Screen shots from ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network.

2015 was a pretty good year for college football fans in the state – especially for fans of its two Big Ten schools.

 

The Michigan Wolverines finished their 2014 season in horrible shape, on and off the field.

After the students held a campus rally, hoping to get athletic director Dave Brandon fired, a popular website, MGoBlog, did the job for them. When MGoBlog published Brandon’s insulting emails to fans, including, “Quit drinking and go to bed,” Brandon had to resign.

Fans react to the end of the Michigan-Michigan State game on October 17, 2015.
screen grab / ESPN


Last Friday, I said Saturday’s game would be the "Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games."

 

Clearly, I had no idea. For the first time in years, the rivalry was billed as a heavyweight prize fight – and it delivered.

The Paul Bunyan trophy is up for grabs this weekend. Will it stay at MSU?
user megstersdad / Wikimedia Commons - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Well, it is finally upon us. The Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games.

And it’s about time.

This rivalry has too often been dismissed as a regional affair, not a national showpiece. That’s partly because the two teams are almost never ranked at the same time.

When one is up, the other’s done.

Lately, it’s been all Michigan State. The Spartans have beaten Michigan six of the last seven, often embarrassing the Wolverines in the process.

Football Roundup

Oct 9, 2015
A football field.
user: Michael Knight / Flickr

On Monday night, the Detroit Lions – the NFL’s lovable losers – found a spectacular new way to break their fans’ hearts.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the team’s best player, was just about to cross the goal line with a go-ahead touchdown when he let a Seattle defender knock the ball out of his hand, and into the endzone.

Baby booties.
user - Aine D / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Last week, Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon and his wife, Christie, gave birth to Theodore Richard Bacon – or “Teddy,” as his friends call him.

That has Bacon thinking about how to raise his boy – and how his father raised him. 

The Wolverine football program, with its famed winged helmet, has taken some lumps over the years.
MGoBlog / Flickr - HTTP://MICHRAD.IO/1LXRDJM

Even before Jim Harbaugh accepted Michigan’s offer to become the Wolverine’s 19th head coach last December, the buzz was deafening.

It was the Saturday after Christmas, and I spent the afternoon on the phone with insiders about the search for a coach. Once I heard the Harbaughs had a flight scheduled for Monday, and a hotel reservation, I was done wondering if the deal was for real.

But it was 10:30 at night, so I thought there was no point in tweeting the news at that hour. My wife told me I might as well, so she could stop hearing me talk about it.

So – fine, I tweeted it.

Northwestern University football players sought to organize.
Northwestern University / Athletics

The National Labor Relations Board ruled this week that college football players cannot unionize, at least for now. The decision involved players at Northwestern University, a charter member of the Big Ten. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon says the players still made their point.

John U. Bacon

  The Big Ten held its media days last week. Fourteen coaches told a few hundred reporters that their team chemistry has never been better, their senior leadership is outstanding, and they can’t wait to get back on the field – but one man stole the show.

Michigan’s new head coach Jim Harbaugh charmed the reporters with stories about everything from his daily commute to the office to his lifelong respect for Woody Hayes – yes, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, Michigan’s sworn enemy.

When Harbaugh left the podium for the next coach, some guy named Kyle Flood of Rutgers – whom you’ve never heard of and probably won’t again -- half the assembled media got up and left the room to follow Harbaugh into the hallway, to ask him still more questions. He happily obliged.

  Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio had to field plenty of questions, too – but his were about Michigan, and Harbaugh himself. He’s still getting them this week. What’s a fella have to do to get out of the shadow of a man who just arrived, and hasn’t even coached a Big Ten game yet?

user: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Danals / Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow night, March Madness resumes – even though it’s April.

Why?  There is too much madness for March alone.

And it’s going to get madder.  Of the teams who made it to the Final Four, three of them were the top seeds in their regions.   

There’s Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten regular season title and conference tournament en route to a sterling 35-3 record. 

Jim Harbaugh arrives in Ann Arbor as Michigan's new head coach in December, 2014. He first arrived in Ann Arbor as a kid in 1973.
MGoBlog / Flickr

When Jim Harbaugh was a freshman quarterback at Michigan, he showed up a few minutes late for his first team meeting – a definite no-no.

Bo Schembechler screamed, “You will never play a down at Michigan!”

John Beilein (left) and Tom Izzo (right).
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Under head coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans have been to 17 straight NCAA tournaments, made it to eight Final Fours and won it all in 2000 – while graduating 81% of his players.

Not too shabby. 

Left Shark, one of the Super Bowl's biggest stars.
Iain Heath / Flickr

Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial national holiday.  Everybody can celebrate, no matter what your religion – or even if you don’t like football.

So, let’s break it down, starting with the ads, which cost $4.5 million a pop. 

Urban Meyer
MGoBlog on Flickr / Flickr

The Big Ten entered the bowl season battered from a brutal decade.

How bad was it?  

Michigan’s sworn enemies, Michigan State and Ohio State, had given up hating the Wolverines.

A Detroit Lions game.
Rachel Kramer / Flickr

The Lions have lost to the Cowboys 13 times – so that’s not unusual. 

There are 31 other teams in the NFL, and 27 of them have winning records against the Lions.  

Bentley Historical Library / University of Michigan

The private jet eased onto the airstrip at Detroit Metro Airport, just a few miles from where Charles Lindbergh once tested World War II bombers.

This plane’s mission wasn’t nearly so serious.  But the joy it gave to the people below might have exceeded just about everything since VJ Day.

The jet’s cargo was James Joseph Harbaugh.  He’s just a football coach, but he was doing exactly what many experts said he would never do: leave the bright lights of the NFL for the college towns of the Big Ten.  This decision – mystifying to most NFL reporters -- explains why the masses might be forgiven if they mistook Harbaugh for their savior. 

But why did Harbaugh do it? 

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

 

Brady Hoke grew up in Ohio, graduated from Ball State, and started his coaching career at Yorktown High in Indiana. He is a football man, through and through.

In 1995, Hoke began an eight-year stint assisting Michigan, a run that included the Wolverines’ first national title since 1948. The coaches and players loved the guy. 

Brady Hoke.
User MGoBlog / Flickr

Update: 6:00 p.m.

This was not an easy choice.

That's what interim Athletic Director Jim Hackett told reporters at the press conference earlier today after announcing that he'd fired head coach Brady Hoke. 

Hockey net.
Dean Michaud / Flickr

It’s been a sad week for the University of Michigan hockey program.  Last Friday, Michigan’s first three-time All-American, Wally Grant, passed away, at 86.  Then on Monday, Grant’s teammate, Al Renfrew, who went on to coach the team for 16 years, died at 89.  These two men made great contributions to Michigan hockey’s unequaled tradition.

During World War II, the fortunes of a college hockey team didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  The able-bodied were fighting in Europe and Asia, so Michigan’s roster shrunk.  So did the schedule, from 20 games to eight.  From 1940 to 1943, the Wolverines won exactly five games - total.  The next year, a local newspaper warned, “Michigan May Remove Hockey From Athletic Program.” 

Courtesy photo / Steelcase

On Nov. 17, 2006, Bo Schembechler died. He was 77.

For Michigan fans, the bad news hasn’t ended. Second-ranked Michigan lost the next day’s game to top-ranked Ohio State, missing a shot at a national title. Then the Wolverines lost the next three straight, including the historic upset by Appalachian State. That was followed by Rich Rodriguez’s troubled three-year run, and now almost four years of Brady Hoke. After Hoke’s honeymoon season in 2011, the program has been sliding steadily downhill.

Gordie Howe's Hockey Card at age 43.
Trish Thornton / Flickr

You don’t have to know much about hockey to know about Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. 

This week, we learned his family is “expecting the worst.”  With his days numbered, you’ll be reading a lot about Howe’s hockey heroics.  He set just about every NHL scoring record, and a dozen still stand.  One of the most impressive: he finished in the top five for scoring for two straight decades.

He played in the NHL at 18, and at 51. 

Howe’s heyday paralleled his team’s, and his town’s.

The Wings were a dynasty, winning four Stanley Cups, and nine regular season titles.  No team symbolized the Motor City’s might like the Red Wings. 

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Eighth-ranked Michigan State is favored to beat the struggling Wolverines by more than two touchdowns.

A victory would mark the Spartans’ sixth win over the Wolverines in their last seven games, establishing unquestioned dominance over the state for the first time in 50 years.

Calling your little brother “Little Brother” gets a bit awkward when he keeps kicking your butt. A win would also preserve the Spartans’ hopes of a national title – something no other Big Ten team can realistically claim.

Michigan’s dreams are more modest, but more urgent.

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