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.

Football Roundup

18 hours ago
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 -

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.

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 greets the crowd at a U of M basketball game on December 30, 2014.
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

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.

A typical student's view inside the Big House.
Andrew Horne / wikimedia commons

When Michigan set out to hire a new athletic director in 2009, it considered three Division I athletic directors who all had close ties to Michigan.  But there was a fourth candidate who seemed to have the inside track.

If there was one thing Domino’s Pizza CEO Dave Brandon could handle, it was public relations.  And if there was one thing Michigan needed, that was it.  Brandon immediately impressed everyone, including me, with his performance in high-pressure press conferences. 

University of Michigan football game
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

In 1895, the presidents of seven Midwestern universities met at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago to form what we now call the Big Ten. They created the world’s first school-based sports organization, predating even the NCAA. 

Soon the rest of the country’s colleges and high schools followed suit, forming their own leagues based on the Big Ten model. 

Creighton Miller carrying the football for Notre Dame against the 1943 Michigan team. Bob Rennebohm of Michigan (wearing jersey #88) is also pictured.
1944 Michiganensian

Michigan and Notre Dame have the longest running duel among major college powers, and one of the best. But that seems to be coming to an end this Saturday – and with a twist: For the first time, it’s Notre Dame that’s backing out.

The rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame goes back to 1887, when a band of boys from Michigan took a train to South Bend and literally taught their counterparts how to play the game.  

The 2007 Michigan - Appalachian State game.
user Derrick S. / Flickr

Well, it goes back to 2007, the year the NCAA allowed schools to add a 12th regular season game, for no reason but revenue.

Yes, another shameless money grab on the backs, knees, and skulls of amateur athletes. 

To find an extra opponent, Michigan had to scramble.

When a Division I-AA team called Appalachian State agreed to come to Ann Arbor for a flat fee of $400,000, fans wondered why Michigan had scheduled a team from the second tier for the first time – and, where the heck is that place?

It turns out Appalachian State isn’t even a state.  (I looked it up.)    

Their fight song didn’t instill much fear, either: “Hi-Hi-yike-us.  No-body like us.  We are the Mountaineers!  Always a-winning.  Always a-grinning.  Always a-feeling fine.  You bet, hey.  Go Apps!”

“The Victors,” it was not.

user Colin K / Flickr

The University of Michigan’s athletic director sent a proposal to the University’s Regents, requesting permission to set off fireworks during two football games this fall. When the Regents turned down the request, it suggested the balance of power might be shifting. 

At first blush, the question of post-game fireworks didn’t seem like a big deal either way. On Michigan fan blogs, reactions were mixed.

As for the University’s Regents, they have bigger things to worry about. Even the athletic department’s budget which has grown by 50%, to $150 million dollars might seem like a lot to us, but that’s a rounding error at the University’s hospital.

So when the Regents voted down the fireworks for two games this season, it got people’s attention.

user: Edwin Martinez / Flickr


Last summer, I told you about Coach Mac, my little league baseball coach who believed in me, and helped me rise from the team’s worst player to become the team’s captain in one season.

I didn’t know where my old coach was, but after the story aired, I received a thank you letter from Coach Mac himself. This week, Coach Mack passed away.

The summer before Mac McKenzie became our little league baseball coach, I spent the season picking dandelions in right field, and batting last. But just weeks after Coach Mac took over, I rose to starting catcher, lead-off hitter, and team captain.

The set of Jeopardy!
U.S. Game Show Wiki

Last night, I tried my luck on the NPR game show, “Ask Me Another.”  It brought back memories – traumatic ones – of my disastrous try out for the Jeopardy! game show 24 years ago.

"I'll take 'Humility' for $100 please, Alex."

"He was one of fifty people to fail the Jeopardy test on June 21, 1990."

"Ah, 'Who was John Bacon?'"

24 years ago, it seemed like a good idea.  There I was, lying on the couch, watching Jeopardy!, and yelling out things like "Millard Fillmore," "The St. Louis Browns" and "Mesopotamia," when they invited anybody who would be in Los Angeles to try out for the show.  Turned out I would be, so I figured, Why Not?   

Why not?  Here’s why: It’s a poor predictor of success on the show, only 3-percent pass it --  oh, and you can’t really study for it.   That’s why.  

UM Ford School

Last week, I explained why Michigan students are dropping football tickets in record numbers.

It touched a nerve – actually a few thousand nerves.  Not just among Michigan fans, but college football fans nationwide.

It’s all well and good to criticize Michigan’s athletic administration – and cathartic for the fans, apparently.  But it doesn’t solve the central problem: How can they keep fans happy?

Allow me to offer a few suggestions.

A typical student's view inside the Big House.
Andrew Horne / wikimedia commons

Last week, Michigan Athletics admitted student football ticket sales are down —from about 21,000 two years ago to just 13,000 this fall.  

How’d Michigan lose so many students so fast?

A lot of hard work.

Athletic Director Dave Brandon has often cited the difficulty of using cell phones at Michigan Stadium as "the biggest challenge we have."  But when Michigan students ranked seven factors for buying season tickets, they ranked cell phones dead last. 

What did they rank first?  Being able to sit with their friends. 

user: Marcus Qwertyus / Wikimedia Commons

When Michael Sam told his University of Missouri teammates he was gay before last season, it wasn’t a big deal. It’s a safe bet that NFL teams – who know what kind of gum their prospects chew – already knew this, too. But when Sam came out publicly, it changed the equation. 

The NFL has already had gay players, so that’s not new. But publicly declaring you’re gay is new – and so is the onslaught of media attention.

Adam Glanzman / Flickr

When Mitch McGary played high school basketball in New Hampshire, he was one of the nation’s top recruits. Michigan fans were rightly thrilled when he decided to play for the Wolverines.   

In his first NCAA tournament, last spring, McGary played so well folks thought he might jump to the NBA. Instead, he returned for his sophomore year – then injured his back so badly, he needed surgery mid-season. The Wolverines weren’t doing much better at 6-4, with Big Ten conference play still ahead. It looked like Michigan might miss the NCAA tournament. 

Bentley Historical Library / University of Michigan

In 1896, the first modern Olympics in Athens staged a marathon. The next year the Boston Athletic Association followed suit. Just 18 men ran that day, with the winner finishing in about three hours – something office workers can beat today.

Most people thought the runners were crazy – if they thought of them at all.

Marathoners don’t care. After winning the 1952 Olympic marathon, Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek said, “If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

Greg Meyer knows exactly what Zatopek was talking about. Meyer grew up in Grand Rapids, and enrolled at Michigan in 1973. That spring, Michigan got a new cross-country coach, Ron Warhust, a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, and a hard-earned lesson: “The world doesn't stop because you’re scared.”