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
7:10 am
Fri April 11, 2014

Remembering the quiet dignity of baseball's Hank Aaron

Baseball legend Hank Aaron
Credit user: Aaron / Flickr

You’ve heard of Babe Ruth. If he’s not the best known American athlete of the last century, he’s in the top five. He was more beloved – by Americans of all stripes – than probably anyone. Ruth loved the fans, and the fans loved him back.

 
In 1961, when fellow Yankee Roger Maris – a nice, humble guy – was approaching Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season, he became so stressed his hair started falling out.

When Hank Aaron started approaching Ruth’s career home run record, he had it worse, for two very simple reasons: 714 home runs was the record in baseball that even the casual fan knew. And second, unlike Maris, Aaron is black. Of course, that shouldn’t matter in the least – but it mattered a lot in 1974.

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, one of seven children. They say his wrists were strong from picking cotton, and also his unusual practice of swinging “cross-handed” – that is, holding the bat with his left hand on top, instead of his right, a habit he didn’t break until the minor leagues.
 
Aaron made it to the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, one of the first African-Americans to play major league baseball. According to Daniel Okrent, a best-selling author who invented fantasy baseball, this was baseball’s richest decade for talent, because every kid grew up playing baseball – not soccer – and, finally, everybody was allowed to play.

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Sports Commentary
8:33 am
Fri April 4, 2014

Move toward a college football player's union should be a wake-up call for the NCAA

Northwestern's Kain Colter is tackled during a game with Army in 2011. Colter has argued the players should be allowed to form a union.
Credit West Point / Flickr

John U. Bacon offers his thoughts on the decision to allow Northwestern University football players to form a union.

Last week’s ruling made a big splash, but it’s actually very narrow. The decision by the National Labor Relations Board applies only to private schools. Further, the players still have to vote on it, and the university is going to appeal, in any case.

But the players have been very shrewd, starting with their leader, senior quarterback Kain Colter. I got to know him while researching my latest book, and he’s a very impressive young man.   

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Sports Commentary
7:30 am
Fri March 28, 2014

There's no such thing as a "Walmart Wolverine"

The Big House
Andrew Horne wikimedia commons

One debate I could do without is this: Who are the real Michigan fans?

I realize that sounds pretty stupid. Anybody who cheers for Michigan is a Michigan fan, right? But we make it harder than it needs to be.   

Some folks believe only people who graduated from Michigan can call themselves real Michigan fans.

The rest? They are mere “Walmart Wolverines” – fans who pick their college teams the way they pick their professional teams: mainly by geography.

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Sports
9:09 am
Fri March 21, 2014

Powerhouse basketball programs in Michigan playing the right way

Tom Izzo coaches his players aboard the USS Carl Vinson in 2011.
U.S. Navy

On Sunday, the Michigan Wolverines faced the Michigan State Spartans in the final of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament.

After a decade of domination by the Spartans, John Beilein’s Wolverines held the upper hand the past few years. They surprised just about everyone when they won the regular season Big Ten title this year by three games. Now they had the rare chance to beat the Spartans three times in one season. 

Well, they say beating your archrival three times is almost impossible, and that proved true.

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Sports
3:10 pm
Fri March 14, 2014

Remembering William Clay Ford

William Clay Ford dies at the age of 88.
Ford Motor Co.

The broadcast version of this commentary.

In the course of his 88 years, William Clay Ford, who died Sunday, captained Yale’s tennis team, earned an engineering degree and chaired Ford Motor Co.’s finance committee, which is enough for any lifetime.

But he will likely be remembered mainly as the owner of the Detroit Lions, during five woefully unsuccessful decades. Since he took over the franchise in 1964, the Lions have won exactly one playoff game, and remain the only NFL team to miss out on all 48 Super Bowls.

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Sports Commentary
6:00 am
Fri March 7, 2014

If John Beilein is not the Big Ten Coach of the Year, Michigan should demand a recount

Beilein (left) cheering on his players in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
NCAA

Once Tom Izzo got Michigan State’s basketball team rolling in the late ‘90s, the Spartans dominated the state for more than a decade.

Izzo’s teams have earned 16 straight NCAA invitations, seven Big Ten titles, five Final Fours, and one national title, in 2000. Along the way, Izzo took 18 of 21 against the Wolverines, who have had four different head coaches during his tenure.

But what a difference a few years make. Michigan basketball coach John Beilein has beaten the Spartans six of their last eight meetings, and returned the long-dormant program to its previous heights.

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Sports Commentary
9:40 am
Fri February 21, 2014

The Winter Olympics might be corrupt, crass and silly, but we still love to watch

U.S. Olympic Team Facebook

Listen to John U. Bacon's commentary on the Winter Olympics.

Why in the world are the Winter Olympics in Sochi, one of Russia’s warmest places?  

Chalk it up to corruption – both the Russians’, which we’ve come to expect, and the International Olympic Committee’s – which we’ve also come to expect.

The IOC hasn’t just shown a willingness to be bought, but an insistence.

That’s how you get a Winter Olympic skating rink built in the shade of palm trees. The warm weather is funny, unless you spent your entire life training for these Olympics, and there’s no snow. Then it’s just heartbreaking.

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Sports
10:15 am
Fri February 14, 2014

Brendan Gibbons, and the UM athletic department’s response

The University of Michigan named a new president last month, and the football team landed another great class of recruits last week. But there’s another story that keeps eclipsing those two. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon has details.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the Brendan Gibbons’ story, because so little is clear – from the incident that started this saga five years ago, to the various responses since.

One thing is clear: the athletic department continually fails to follow the advice legendary athletic director Don Canham,

“Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.”

This story starts in 2009, when Wolverine kicker Brendan Gibbons had an encounter at a party with a female student. Ultimately, only two people know what happened, but we do know she contacted the Ann Arbor Police, then decided not to press charges.

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Sports Commentary
8:49 am
Fri January 17, 2014

Write these 2014 sports predictions down. You won't be disappointed.

John U. Bacon's wild prediction for 2014? The Pistons will not make the playoffs.
Corey Seeman Flickr

Since I review the year in sports each December, my editor thought, “Hey, why not preview the year in sports in January?!?”

Why not? Because I have no idea what’s going to happen. Nobody does.

That’s why we watch sports: We don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s also why we shouldn’t watch pregame shows: everybody is just guessing. 

That said, if Michigan Radio wants to pay me to make wild, unsupported guesses – then doggonnit, that’s what I’ll do. 

Let’s start at the bottom.

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Sports Commentary
10:09 am
Fri December 20, 2013

The Year in Michigan Sports, John U. Bacon looks back

In 2013, one of the greats moved on from the Tiger dugout.
Detroit Tigers

The year in sports started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.

The NHL lockout started the way these things usually do: The players thought the owners made too much money, and the owners thought the players made too much money.  And, of course, both sides were dead right.

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri December 13, 2013

Former MSU president used football to build an academic powerhouse

Jim Ellis and the Spartans beat Notre Dame, 35-0, on Nov. 10, 1951 in Spartan Stadium. They went on to an undefeated season and a national championship.
MSU

Every university has got its giants, of course. But those schools born around the Civil War needed bigger men than most to carve these campuses out of forests and fields, then build them to rival the world’s greatest institutions. And they did it all in just a few decades.

At Michigan State, that man was John A. Hannah.

Hannah was a proud graduate of Michigan Agricultural College in 1923, earning a degree in poultry science. Eighteen years later, he became the school’s president – at the ripe age of 39.

Hannah’s timing couldn’t be better.

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Sports Commentary
11:42 am
Fri December 6, 2013

Pressure builds on Michigan Football as Athletic Department's budget grows

Anthony Gattine Flickr

I’ve often joked that some Michigan football fans aren’t happy unless they’re not happy.  But after 11 games this season, even they could be excused for having plenty to be unhappy about. A week ago, the Wolverines were 3-and-4 in the Big Ten, with undefeated Ohio State coming up next. 

The Wolverines had been surprisingly bad all season -- until the Ohio State game, when they were suddenly, surprisingly good, falling short by just one point in the final minute.  It was the first time I have ever seen Michigan fans feeling better after a loss than before it. 

Still, the heroic performance was bittersweet.

Where was that team all year?  Which team will return next year – the one that got crushed by Michigan State, or the one that almost beat the Buckeyes?

But Michigan’s bigger problems are off the field, not on it.

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Sports
1:00 am
Fri November 22, 2013

When football players boycott

Anderson Mancini Flickr

Listen to John U. Bacon's commentary.

The Grambling State University football team plays in the unheralded Southwestern Athletic Conference, in the division beneath the big boys. They had an 11-game losing streak, stretching back into the 2012 season.

In short, this was not a team that warranted national attention.

But the Tigers finally got some last month. No, they didn’t notch their first win that day – or even another loss. They didn’t play – and it wasn’t due to bad weather or a bye week. The players simply refused to take the field.

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Sports
8:51 am
Fri November 8, 2013

What could Michigan's loss to MSU mean for Brady Hoke?

Brady Hoke likes football a lot.
Michigan Football Facebook

Moments before the Michigan Wolverines introduced Brady Hoke as their new head football coach in 2011, Michigan fans had lots of questions. Why not hire a national star like Les Miles or Jim Harbaugh, who both played at Michigan? Who was Brady Hoke? Was he up to the task?

Hoke answered these questions by nailing his first press conference. He won over more Michigan fans in just a few minutes than his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, had been able to do in three years. When a reporter asked Hoke if the Wolverines would be rebuilding, he famously replied, “This is Michigan, for godsakes” – and a star was born.

It was hard to imagine a happier honeymoon than Hoke’s. In his rookie season, the Wolverines beat Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State – for the first time in eight years. They won their first BCS bowl game since Tom Brady did the job in 2000, en route to an 11-2 record. From the fans in the stands to the team in the trenches, the love for Coach Hoke was universal.

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Sports
1:00 am
Fri October 25, 2013

What shouldn't be forgotten about Jim Leyland's baseball career

Detroit Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland
Detroit Tigers

A story from John U. Bacon

This week, Detroit Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland announced his retirement. He was an ‘old school’ manager, relying more on his guts than a spreadsheet. His decisions irritated some fans, but not his results. 

When you’re 68, working in a young man’s game, announcing your retirement is not a surprise. But there are a few underappreciated qualities about this grizzled veteran that are worth remembering.

Jim Leyland was a baseball man to the core. Raised in Perrysburg, Ohio, the son of a glassworker, he grew up wanting to do one thing: Play baseball.

He was good, very good, so the Tigers signed him up to play catcher in their minor league system. But just to get to the majors, you need to be great – and after seven years battling to get to the big leagues, Leyland realized he wasn’t great. Not as a player, at least.  

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Sports
8:00 am
Fri October 18, 2013

The Mudbowl takes us back to what football used to be

A picture from the 1946 Mudbowl game. In the center is the "Queen" of the bowl.
user Wystan Flickr

 

Tomorrow morning, one of Michigan’s oldest traditions will be on display. No, not at the Big House, but at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.

That’s where they’ve played something they call The Mudbowl every year since 1933, the same season Jerry Ford played center for the national champion Wolverines, and Columbia University won the Rose Bowl.

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Sports
1:43 pm
Fri October 4, 2013

Creating a minor league for football and basketball could save college athletics. Here's why.

Fans at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

An audio essay from John U. Bacon.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said last week that football and basketball might work better if they had minor leagues, so players who didn’t want to attend college had somewhere else to go.    

I came to the same conclusion several years ago, though for different reasons.  Most of the problems with college football and basketball can be traced back to their beginnings.  Unlike most sports, football and basketball developed on college campuses.  When the NFL and NBA opened decades later, they didn’t have to start their own minor leagues, they simply used the college teams to develop their players. 

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Sports
1:00 am
Fri September 27, 2013

Who learned their lesson from Penn State's NCAA sanctions?

Penn State survived the NCAA sanctions.
user: wfyurasko Flickr

In November of 2011, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on forty criminal counts, including the sexual assault of eight boys over a fifteen-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State’s football building.

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Sports
7:20 am
Fri September 20, 2013

Michigan football: are the ghosts gone?

There are some things Michigan fans just don't find funny.
Mark Brush Michigan Radio

John U. Bacon reflects on "The Horror" and what some pundits call "The Worst Win Ever."

Michigan football fans often wear funny pants and funny hats. They sing funny songs and tell funny stories.

But to Michigan fans, some things are not funny – and Appalachian State is about five of them. 

You might recall those guys, who opened the 2007 season against the fifth-ranked Wolverines. Everybody made fun of Appalachian State, because nobody knew where it was. It turns out it isn’t even a state. I looked it up. 

No ranked team in the game’s top division, like Michigan, had ever lost to a team from Appalachian State’s division. The point spread was 27. Not since 1891, when the Wolverines opened the season against Ann Arbor High School, did Michigan’s home opener seem like such a mismatch.   

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Sports
7:00 am
Fri August 9, 2013

I loved baseball from the start – but it didn’t love me

Julian Carvajal Flickr

When I started in tee-ball, I was so short that if the catcher put the tee on the far corner of the plate, I couldn’t reach it.  Yes, I struck out – in tee ball.  


Our first year of live pitching wasn’t any better. One game we were beating the other team so badly, they were about to trigger the “Mercy Rule,” and end the game. Coach Van pulled me in from my post in right field – where I kept company with the dandelions – and told me to pitch. I wasn’t a pitcher – I wanted to be a catcher, like Bill Freehan -- but I’m thinking, “This is my chance.”  I walked three batters, but miraculously got three outs. We won – and I figured that was my stepping stone to greater things.

I was surprised my dad wasn’t as happy as I was. He knew better – but he didn’t tell me until years later: Coach Van was not putting me in to finish the game. He was putting me in to get shelled, so the game would keep going. He was putting me in to fail.  

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