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 “Third and Long: Three years with Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines.”

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

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Sports Commentary
2:25 pm
Fri April 15, 2011

Michigan Ice Hockey, Shawn Hunwick's Cinderella story

Shawn Hunwick in the goal during the NCAA championship
MGoBlue.com

Most sports fans love a Cinderella story.

I've found an athlete who played the role twice.

Last year, Michigan’s men’s hockey team was in danger of breaking its

record 19-straight appearances in the NCAA tournament – a streak that started before many of the current players were even born.

They were picked to finish first in the league, but they finished a disastrous seventh. 

The only way they could keep their streak alive was to win six straight playoff games to get an automatic bid.

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Sports Commentary
10:03 am
Fri April 8, 2011

Remembering Vada Murray

If you’re not a Michigan football fan, you probably haven’t heard of Vada Murray, but you might have seen his picture.

It’s one of the iconic images of Michigan football, along with Tom Harmon standing in his mud-soaked, torn-apart jersey, Ol’ 98, and Desmond Howard diving to catch a touchdown against Notre Dame -- two Heisman Trophy winners, winning big games.

But the photo I’m talking about depicts Vada Murray and Tripp Welborne soaring skyward to block a field goal.

They were a kicker’s nightmare, but even when they got a hand on the ball, it simply denied their opponent three points -- not the kind of thing that wins you a Heisman Trophy or an NFL contract.

They don’t even keep records of blocked kicks.

But, over two decades later, something about that photo still resonates, perhaps because it captures their effort, their intensity, their passion – all of it spent just to give their teammates a slightly better chance for success.

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Sports Commentary
10:58 am
Fri March 25, 2011

Getting to know the Fab Five

The Fab Five - From left to right, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard.
user skoch 3 wikimedia commons

A lot of this story, you already know:

Five super-talented freshmen come to Michigan, and by mid-season the Wolverines become the first team in NCAA history to start all five freshmen. They get to the final game of March Madness before losing to defending national champion Duke. The next year, they make it to the finals again, but lose to North Carolina when their best player, Chris Webber, calls a time-out they don’t have. 

Along the way they make baggy shorts and black socks fashionable, and import rap music and trash talk from the inner-city playground to the mainstream of college basketball.

It’s been that way ever since.

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Sports Commentary
9:33 am
Fri March 18, 2011

Fennville's Wes Leonard "Never Forgotten"

user blakjakdavy Flickr

On Monday I drove a couple hours to see a high school basketball game in Vicksburg, Michigan – about 20 minutes south of Kalamazoo.  The Class C regional semi-final pitted Schoolcraft against Fennville.  Both schools were undefeated – but that wasn’t why I was going.

Two weeks ago Fennville lost its star center, Wes Leonard, just minutes after the last regular season contest. Leonard had made the game winning shot, and the Fennville fans rushed the court and hoisted their hero onto their shoulders.

Then, just seconds later, the truly unthinkable happened: Wes Leonard’s enlarged heart gave out, and he collapsed, right on the court.  Before midnight, the town pastor emerged from the hospital to tell the crowd Wes Leonard had died.

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Sports Commentary
10:49 am
Fri March 11, 2011

Ohio State's Jim Tressel and the NCAA: the sheriff is now the saloon keeper

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. Ohio State has suspended the coach for two games next season.
user johntex wikimedia commons

It looks like Jim Tressel has gotten himself into a bit of hot water.

That’s why his boss, athletic director Gene Smith, flew back to make sure everyone said they were “taking responsibility” – a phrase which changed some time in the last decade, and now means the exact opposite.

It was fine theater.  

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Sports Commentary
4:11 pm
Thu March 3, 2011

Earl Boykins: The little guy that outlasted them all

Earl Boykins with the ball when he played for the Denver Nuggets. He now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Jeramey Jannene Flickr

Eastern Michigan University had a very strong basketball team in 1996.

The Eagles were so good they stunned the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 75-60.

They had nation’s second-leading scorer - and their program listed his height at 5-foot-8 inches.

This, I had to see. 

I watched Earl Boykins and his teammates torch Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Ball State.

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Sports Commentary
4:31 pm
Thu February 24, 2011

Remembering Fred Fragner

Fred Fragner was a parent John U. Bacon met while coaching his son's hockey team.
Dean Michaud Flickr

Whenever I talk to a high school coach who quit, they always say the kids were great, but the parents drove them crazy.

It doesn’t matter what sport.  

But when I coached the Ann Arbor Huron High School hockey team, I was lucky.

Yes, getting to know the players was the best part, and now, seven years after I stepped down, I’m going to their weddings.

What I didn’t expect, though, was becoming lifelong friends with their parents, too.  

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Sports Commentary
4:55 pm
Thu February 17, 2011

February, the slow season for sports

Watching channel zero
user greenkozi Flickr

Last week my beloved television went POOF! It was seven years old, or 14 in sports writer years.  

So, what great sports events did I miss?

Well, I can’t be sure, of course, but I’m willing to bet… not much.

Sports writers complain about the dog-days of summer, when all we have to write about is tennis and Tiger and the Tigers – and, that’s about it. But there’s a lesser-known slow season for sports scribes, and it's called February.

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Commentary
8:13 am
Fri February 11, 2011

Super Bowl Hoopla

A storm trooper prepares to take the stage at a downtown Pittsburgh Super Bowl XLV rally
user daveynin Flickr

Forty five years ago, the Super Bowl wasn’t even the Super Bowl.

They called it the NFL-AFL Championship game, until one of the founders renamed it after watching his grandson play with a “High Bouncing Ball” – a super ball.

Tickets were only fifteen bucks for that first game, and they barely sold half of those, leaving some 40,000 empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum.   

A 30-second ad cost only $42,000, and they weren’t any different than the ads they showed the previous weekend.

The half-time show featured three college marching bands, including one you might have seen from the University of Michigan.

Over the next couple decades, of course, the event became a veritable national holiday.  Tickets now sell for thousands of dollars, and ads for millions.  The game attracts more than 100 million viewers in the U.S. alone.

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Sports
3:43 pm
Thu January 6, 2011

Love or hate Rich Rodriguez, coaching college football is tough

For the past three years I’ve had unfettered access to the Michigan football program, from the film room to the locker room, to write a book about what I’ve seen.

Before I walked into that first staff meeting, I thought I knew Michigan football as well as anyone.  But after three years of seeing everything up close, I can tell you this unequivocally: I had no idea.

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Opinion
4:18 pm
Thu December 16, 2010

Commentary: New Big Ten Logo a Big Zero

The new Big Ten logo

Last spring the Big Ten Conference added Nebraska, giving the league 12 teams.

So, what do you do -- change the name to the Big 12?  No, because that name's already taken by another conference -- which, naturally, now has ten teams.  So the Big Ten decided to keep its name -- and change everything else.   

To create a new logo, they could ask some corn-fed rubes like you and your friends, but you would probably do something stupid like draw on the Big Ten's 115-year history and come up with something simple, honest, and authentic.  Or you might just pay some art student a hundred bucks to make a new logo, like Nike did, and end up with some swoosh-looking thing, which no one remembers.

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Opinion
7:28 pm
Fri December 10, 2010

The Big Chill is big time, but hockey was not always so popular at UM

Dubbed "The Cold War" - University of Michigan vs. Michigan State University ice hockey in Spartan Stadium in 2001. "The Big Chill" is coming to Michigan Stadium tomorrow night.
wikipedia user grosscha

Tomorrow, more than 100,000 frozen fans will watch Michigan play Michigan State at the Big House. Not in football, which happens every other year - but in hockey, thus setting the record for the biggest crowd ever to watch a hockey game - anywhere.

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