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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.

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

User Xanteen / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Americans have become obsessed with concussions, and with good reason. But for medical professionals, it’s a double-edged sword: people are interested, but they also have more misinformation.

For example, concussions last only a week or two, while smaller, more frequent hits can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – but the two are often lumped together.

A view across the devastated neighborhood of Richmond in Halifax, Nova Scotia after the Halifax Explosion in 1917. The steamship Imo, one of the ships in the collision that triggered the explosion, can be seen aground on the far side of the harbor.
wikimedia commons

The University of Michigan hockey team started its season last week. But the program started 94 years ago. It was a surprising byproduct of the worst man-made explosion to that point, and of a young man who changed his mind about Americans.

Jim Harbaugh during last week's Penn State game.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

After the Michigan Wolverines lost to Michigan State, they beat Indiana and then traveled to Happy Valley to take on Penn State, looking for a little more redemption.

What a difference a year makes.

Since 1986, college football fans looked forward to hearing the beautiful baritone of John Saunders on ESPN and ABC – but not this year.

I met him two decades ago during a charity hockey game at Joe Louis Arena. We dressed next to each other, started talking, and kept it up for a couple decades.

Ten years ago, John told me he wanted to write books. We started exploring a couple ideas, until September 10, 2011, when John stood up too fast on the set, blacked out, and fell backward on the tile floor, right on the back of his head.

Michigan vs. Notre Dame. The two teams play their final game in 2014.
Michigan Football / Facebook

For the first time in their 119-year football rivalry, Michigan and Michigan State football will play at night this Saturday.

The 7:30 kick-off time excites the recruits, the players, and the students. In other words, young people. The night game bothers many older fans, and worries store owners, university officials, and the police.

True, the late starts can bring a new energy to the game, which it did when Michigan hosted Notre Dame in Michigan’s first ever night game, in 2011. After the Wolverines pulled off an amazing 17-point comeback, the crowd stuck around for 30 minutes, just to cheer.

But older fans don’t like getting in their cars after midnight, especially when many have to drive several hours. Everyone else is worried about how fans will behave after a full day of tailgating. Some restaurant owners are prepared to close their doors if things get out of hand, and the police and university leaders of both schools are working to keep that from happening.  

So why risk it? That one’s easy: Money.

The FBI and NCAA

Sep 29, 2017

FBI undercover agents have been investigating college basketball for two years, and they found everything the NCAA has largely failed to find for decades: coaches paying top recruits through shoe companies. The investigation is ongoing, and the results are only now starting to roll out, so we still have more questions than answers. But we can already be certain of a few things.   

Assistant coaches at the University of Southern California, Arizona, Auburn, and Oklahoma State were arrested for corruption. Not questioned about potential cheating, the way the NCAA does it. Arrested.

MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I’ve always said the two toughest jobs in this state are not governor, mayor of Detroit, or CEO of General Motors, but goalie for the Red Wings and quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines, because you can never do enough.

Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight with coach Jim Harbaugh during last week's game in the AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Hang around the Midwest long enough and you’ll hear just about every Big Ten fan say, “I love fall!”

It makes a lot of sense when you experience our famously frigid, gray winters, our non-existent springs, and our surprisingly steamy summers.

But in Big Ten towns, life begins anew not in spring, but in fall— when the students and professors return right on schedule, concerts and shows pack the calendar again, and the whole cycle starts over.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_Pearson

This week, the University of Michigan did something it hasn’t had to do in 33 years: hire a new hockey coach.

The last time the job opened was 1984. Athletic director Don Canham heard Red Berenson was on campus moving his oldest son, Gordie, into his dorm room. Canham called Berenson to his office, offered him the job for the third time, and Berenson finally took it.

If he hadn’t, it’s not clear who Canham could have hired. After all, the guy Michigan just fired was a failed former high school hockey coach. Michigan was at the bottom of a glorified bus league, with an empty building, and nothing to brag about.

 Red Berenson, coaches the University of Michigan's hockey team.
MGoBlog / Flickr

Gordon “Red” Berenson"  loved the game from the start. When he was a six-year old kid in Regina, Sasketchewan, for Christmas his parent gave him new skates, gloves, and shin pads.

He was so excited, he called his best friend on the party line – at 6 a.m. When his friend’s mom answered, she said, “Do you know it’s 6 a.m.?”

Berenson replied, “Yes -- but this is important!”

He played most of his games outside, where the prairie winds make it feel like you’re skating uphill. By 18 he was so good, the Montreal Canadiens wanted him to turn pro. When he decided to go to the University of Michigan instead, the Canadiens' general manager warned him, “If you go to an American college, you’ll never become a pro.”

Berenson went anyway.

Ninety seconds into his first game at Michigan, he skated end to end and scored his first goal. He scored 78 more, including 43 his senior year, still a Michigan record. He was the best player in the country.

The first part of this story, you probably know.

The Michigan men’s basketball stunk so badly two months ago, just about everyone figured they’d never get to the NCAA tournament in March. They had some talent, but other coaches considered them one-dimensional: all offense and no defense. Worse, they said Michigan was soft and lazy – two things no coach wants to hear about his team.

John U. Bacon

The Michigan men’s basketball team just finished one of the craziest seasons in program history.

After a sluggish start, the Wolverines were in danger of not only missing the NCAA tournament, but even the second-rate National Invitational Tournament.

Last week, Michigan men’s basketball team traveled to take on Northwestern. For years, that trip amounted to a fun field trip for the Wolverines, a chance to pad their stats before taking on the Big Ten’s big boys.

Not this year. The Wolverines and the Wildcats both entered the game in the top half of the league, and on the verge of an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

The 2008 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings pose for a group photo on the ice of the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
Michael Righi / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Detroit Red Wings have been one of the most successful franchises in any sport for a quarter century, by just about any measure: victories, titles, attendance, profits, and even respect – from fans, players, and executives.

Most sports fans are happy just to see their team make the playoffs. But the Red Wings made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons – a league record.

Derrick Walton Jr.'s Wolverines beat Wisconsin last night.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Michigan’s basketball team, led by two strong seniors, was expected to return to the NCAA tournament this year, for the seventh time in coach John Beilein’s tenth year. But after the Wolverines dropped three of their first four Big Ten games, few would have taken that bet.

Tom Brady in 2009, quarterback for the New England Patriots.
Keith Allison / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady just won a record fifth Super Bowl Sunday night. He’s now being called the greatest of all time. But you wouldn’t have guessed that 25 years ago, when Brady had to fight for playing time on his high school junior varsity, a team that had not scored a touchdown all year.

John U. Bacon

Today, big time college football coaches are media stars, with thousands of followers on Twitter. They’re rich and famous, whether they should be or not. Even assistant coaches are millionaires. But it wasn’t always that way.

This week in Ann Arbor a few hundred people gathered to remember a college football coach who wasn’t rich or famous. But he’d earned the respect of everyone there.

Former Michigan hockey player Scott Matzka drops the puck at center ice to start the alumni game.
Michigan Hockey

The most compelling sports story of the week was not the NFL playoffs, the college football playoffs, the NBA, or the NHL. It wasn’t even televised.

On Saturday night, the Red Wing alumni team took on a squad of former University of Michigan players. It was just an exhibition, which only mattered to those who thought it mattered. But 2,000 folks did, because it mattered a great deal to a former Michigan star named Scott Matzka

First, the good news: A hearty four college football teams from the state of Michigan were invited to play in bowl games this winter: the University of Michigan, plus Eastern, Western and Central Michigan. The only top-tier team not to qualify: Michigan State, which fell all the way from a top-four spot in last year’s playoffs to a dismal 3-9 record.

Now, the bad news: All the teams from Michigan lost.

They used to play the Cotton Bowl game in the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas. Not anymore. It's now played in the AT&T Stadium.
user bmendez68 / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

It’s college bowl season, and around these parts, that can only mean one thing: Rumors of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh going to the NFL!

Of course, that seasonal rumor comes with many other traditions, including ridiculously irresponsible click-bait stories based on absolutely nothing, everyone freaking out because of it, and the whole thing amounting to zero. ‘Tis the season – and will be every season Harbaugh is Michigan’s coach, any NFL team needs a coach, and any reckless reporter needs a few thousand more Twitter followers.

Game of the century

Dec 2, 2016

The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has long been considered the nation’s best.

But for all the great Michigan-Ohio State games, the two teams never entered The Game ranked first and second, until 2006 -- The Game of the Century. And despite the fact that the century was only six years old, the game delivered, with Ohio State winning a 42-39 classic.

John U. Bacon

It was supposed to be simple. Before the college football season started, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State were all ranked in the top twelve. The three teams were expected to battle all fall, with the Big Ten East Division title coming down to the Michigan-Ohio State game, and the winner going to the four-team national playoff.

Well, the best laid-plans, and all that. After compiling an amazing 36-5 record over the past three years, the Spartans won their first two games, before losing their next seven. The wheels have all but come off in East Lansing, where they’re just playing for pride.

On Michigan Radio, we don’t normally cover baseball outside the state. But we have to make an exception this week, because the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

If we don’t talk about this now, we might not get another chance for 108 years. And who knows? I could be gone by then.

Why should you care about either team?

Well, maybe you shouldn’t. These are just games, after all, while we’re in the throes of the most serious election in decades.

Michigan punter Blake O'Neill.
Mgoblog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Last year, football fans witnessed the Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games. For the first time in years, both teams were ranked, revved up, and ready to go.

The Spartans moved the ball much better than the Wolverines, but still trailed Michigan until the last play of the game.

How was that possible?

Because Michigan’s fantastic punter, an Australian named Blake O’Neill, was having the game of his life, pinning the Spartans deep in their own end, time and again.  

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

Two years ago, the Michigan Wolverines had just lost to Rutgers to post an anemic 2-4 record. Fans were miserable, especially the students, and they showed it by staying home instead of going to the stadium.

Last week, Michigan beat Rutgers 78-0. They’re undefeated, and ranked fourth in the nation. What a difference a couple years make – or one coach, take your pick.

That coach, of course, is Jim Harbaugh, and he’s probably the hottest coach in America.

Textbooks
Danny Nicholson / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Now that the teachers and students are back in school, I can’t resist turning my attention to school sports, one of my favorite subjects.

I am a proud 1982 graduate of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. I can still remember the name of every teacher I ever had. Almost all were very good, and I had more truly exceptional teachers than anyone has a right to expect. I’m still in touch with many of them.

Michigan football players practice in the spring of 2016 at Ford Field.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A few years ago I had the chance to work out with the Michigan football team, for a six solid weeks. I lifted more weights than I any writer should, followed by an ungodly number of sit-ups, pushups and pull-downs.

Just 15 minutes into my first work out, I was sweating like a pig, and panting like a dog. You could have taken my pulse by touching my hair.

It wasn’t long before I was running to the trashcan to get rid of my breakfast.

Clockwise from top right: Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio, Kirk Ferentz, and Urban Meyer.
photos from wikimedia and wikipedia / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Two years ago, the Southeastern Conference was dominant, while the Big Ten looked like a doormat. Experts cited the Midwest economy, and the migration to the South and West. But during opening weekend, the Big Ten teams lost only two games, while the SEC lost 7. The difference is not demographics, but coaching.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, arms out, protesting a call
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

It’s seems like eons ago now, but just two years ago, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke seemed poised for a solid season. With eight or nine wins, Hoke’s job would be safe, athletic director Dave Brandon would give him a contract extension, and the Brandon-Hoke Era would continue for many years.

On the West Coast, everybody expected Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers to make their fourth straight trip to the playoffs.

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

Gordie Howe lived so long that most Americans don’t know that he set just about every record there is, he helped the sport expand, he got hundreds of thousands of Americans playing the game, and millions more watching.

Howe was one of nine kids born in a farmhouse in Floral, Sasketchewan – a town so tiny, their post office closed in 1923. During the Great Depression, a neighbor brought over a gunnysack full of used things, including a beat-up pair of skates.

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