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.

Anderson Mancini / Flickr

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.

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.

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Detroit Tigers

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.  

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.

University of Michigan football game
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

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. 

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.

University of Michigan football game
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

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.   

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.  

TEDxUofM / Vimeo

 Jon Falk first met football coach Bo Schembechler in 1967.  Falk was a freshman working in the equipment room at Miami of Ohio, and Schembechler was the head coach. Schembechler seemed pretty gruff to Falk, so he avoided him. That was not going to work for long. 

Falk graduated from Miami in 1971 and stayed on as the football team’s assistant equipment manager. He lived at home with his mother and his grandmother and took care of them. In 1974 Bo invited Falk to interview in Ann Arbor. Falk had never lived anywhere but tiny Oxford, Ohio, so he was a little apprehensive about going to such a big place.

When he returned, he told his mother and grandmother that he was going to turn down Coach Schembechler’s offer because he did not want to leave the two of them by themselves. That night, around four in the morning, Falk’s mother came into his room, crying. She said it hurt her to say it, but he must go to Michigan. “I know Coach Schembechler will take care of you.”

University of Exeter / Flickr

Summer time, and the livin' is easy.

But not if you have children. Nowadays, you have to drive your kid to soccer camp and band camp, to this lesson and that clinic, to make sure they never have a single un-programmed minute of summer to themselves.

Yes, something is gained from all this -- like structure and safety -- but something is lost, too. You see a basket in every driveway, but no one playing on them. Without their own games, kids never learn how to settle their own arguments. Does any ten-year-old know what a "do-over" is?

user seabamirum / Flickr

I first met Mike Lapprich when I was an assistant hockey coach at Ann Arbor Huron High School, and he was just a ninth grader.  He was a big kid with a baby face, a shy guy with an easy smile – an oversized puppy. 

I came back five years later as the head coach, when Lapper, as we all called him, had just finished his first year as an assistant coach, at age 18.

When I met the returning captain that summer, he brought a list of talking points.  The first: “You have no idea what you’re getting into.”  The second: “Lapper’s our man.  He’s the guy we trust.  Keep him, and treat him right.” 

Ohio State University

Ohio State University president Gordon Gee’s ability to put money in the bank was equaled only by his ability to put his foot in his mouth.  Well, this week he was finally fired – er, retired, entirely voluntarily, of course, not pushed at all.  Nooo.    

Gee has delivered a seemingly endless stream of gaffes, slanders and just plain stupid comments, which culminated in his unexpected departure.  In politics, they say, when a man is shooting himself in the foot, don’t grab the gun.  In that spirit, I’ll let the man’s words speak for themselves.

user: All your picture are belong to us / Flickr

Wednesday night the Detroit Red Wings lost their final playoff game of the season to the Chicago Blackhawks, breaking the hearts of hockey fans across Michigan.  But according to Michigan Radio Sports Commentator John U. Bacon, it was still a series to savor.

Most sports fans are happy just to see their team make the playoffs. But Detroit Red Wings fans have been able to take that for granted for a record 22 straight seasons.  The last time the Red Wings didn’t make the playoffs, 1990, not one current NHL player was in the league.  Some of the current Red Wings weren’t born.  Nine current franchises weren’t yet created.  

But the record seemed doomed to be broken this season.

user AndrewHorne / Wikimedia

For decades, students at Michigan games were assigned seats, with the seniors getting the best ones. But for some games last year, a quarter of the 20,000 or so people in the student section were no-shows.

So, athletic director Dave Brandon decided to switch them to general admission – first come, first seated -- to get them to show up on time -or, at all.

The students went ballistic.

Yes, some can display a breathtaking sense of entitlement, and they won’t get much sympathy from the average fan, who has to pay three or four-times more.

All the President's Men photo / metroland.net

CareerCast.com ranked more than 1,000 American jobs, and determined that the worst job isn’t garbage collector, animal cage cleaner or Lindsey Lohan’s sobriety tester  – but journalist.

Yes!  Score!  Booyah!

They based their rankings on four criteria:

  • the workplace environment,
  • the industry’s future,
  • the job’s average income,
  • and stress.

Okay, it’s true: newsrooms aren’t pretty places.  The future looks bleak for newspapers.  You can make more money doing a lot of other things.  And, yes, the stress is very real.  The hours are bad and many of our customers think they can do it better – and often take the time to tell us that.

But journalists themselves have reacted to this ranking with all the cool, collected calm of Geraldo Rivera, or Nancy Grace.

But here’s why: newsrooms aren’t for everybody, but we like them – the hustle and bustle and energy and urgency.  We like the stress, too – no matter how much we complain about it – because it comes with doing work we think actually matters.

NCAA

It wasn’t that long ago that Michigan’s basketball program was not merely unsuccessful, but the shame of the athletic department.

Bo Schembechler fired basketball coach Bill Frieder on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament, famously barking, “A Michigan Man will coach Michigan.”

Assistant Coach Steve Fisher filled in, and the team “shocked the world” by winning Michigan’s first-ever national title in basketball.

But on the eve of Fisher’s ninth season, he too was fired in disgrace, because some players had been paid by a booster.

Scott Galvin / UM Photo Services

Sports columnist Rick Reilly once wrote that weekend golfers invariably claim, “I’m a good golfer.  I’m just not consistent.”

Well, he said, if you’re not consistent, you’re not a good golfer.  

Americans are great at building things, and rotten at maintaining them. 

We admire winners and celebrities, but we overlook the loyal spouse or the honest accountant or the people who maintain our bridges – that’s why they’re falling apart. 

So, let this be a salute to consistency – that most unheralded virtue. 

In 1984, Red Berenson took over Michigan’s moribund hockey program, which had not been to the NCAA tournament in seven years.  Berenson thought it would be easy, but it took seven more years to get Michigan hockey back to the big dance in 1991. 

Once they got into the tournament, they made it a point to stay there.  Year after year, they kept coming back. 

Finally, in 1996, they won Michigan’s first national title in 32 years – and they did it again in 1998.   They’ve come close a few times since, but they have yet to win another. 

This bothers Berenson, one of the most competitive men I’ve ever met.  When he visited my class, I listed his many accomplishments on the board.  

www.bestsportsphotos.com

A lot of amateur athletes think they’re not that far from the people who play their sports for a living. 

Well, when Michigan Radio Sports commentator John U. Bacon tried out for Detroit’s minor league hockey team, he found out that just isn’t so – and he found out the hard way.

A few years ago – okay, a bunch of years ago – I bit on a bet I never should have touched. 

I was writing for the Detroit News, and a top minor league hockey team called the Detroit Vipers played at the Palace. 

So, I got to thinking: just how big is the gap, really, between the pros, and beer league players like me?

Good question. And even better if I didn’t try to answer it.  But, being the hard-hitting investigative journalist that I am, I had to go down to the Palace, and find out.

U-M Bentley Historical Library

In the Michigan hockey program’s 90-year history, some 600 players have scored more than 10,000 total goals.  But the man who scored the team’s very first goal 90 years ago, might still be the most impressive one of the bunch. 

This is the story of Eddie Kahn.

Madding Crowd / Flikr

Super Bowl XLVII provided us with thrills, spills and record electric bills – plus a football game somewhere in there. 

Congratulations! 

You not only survived that annual orgy of conspicuous consumption called the Super Bowl, you also survived the two weeks of endless stories without news that lead up to the big day. 

And when the big game arrives, what is our reward?  On the one day we actually look forward to watching TV ads, they were so bland and boring and just plain bad, we had no choice but to turn our attention to the actual football game.

Bentley Historical Library / University of Michigan

With Ann Arbor’s own Harbaugh brothers about to square off in the Super Bowl, you’ll probably start to hear lots of stories from the folks who met them along the way. 

Well, count me in.

flickr

With the college football season finally behind us, I wanted to write a simple college football roundup, ending in a sweet little story about a very good guy.

But every time I tried, some bad news got in the way.

The first obstacle was Lance Armstrong.  In case you missed it – though I can’t imagine how – it turns out the man who came back from cancer to win a record seven Tours de France and write two best-selling books about his inspirational story, is a fraud. 

Sheldon Boyd / YouTube

I’ve played hockey my entire life, so I’m biased. But when you combine ice skating, stick handling, passing, shooting and yes, body-checking, in one game, you’ve got it all.

Until they start playing lacrosse in the water or golf on skis, hockey will remain the hardest sport to play, and the most impressive to see played well.

There’s nothing like it. 

So, for Detroit Red Wings fans, the NHL lockout was a nightmare.

Ben Stanfield / Wikipedia

2012 was a remarkable year in many ways, and the sports world was no exception.

Just a few hours into the New Year, Michigan State and Michigan both won bowl games in overtime, and both finished with eleven wins.  A good start.

Not all the news was happy, of course.  We said goodbye to some legends.  Budd Lynch, who lost his right arm in World War II, announced Red Wing games for six decades, right up to his death this fall, at 95. Another Bud, VanDeWege, ran Moe’s Sports Shops in downtown Ann Arbor for 46 years, turning thousands of Michigan fans into friends. He passed away at 83. 

user AndrewHorne / Wikimedia

A 'seat license' is a fee fans pay just to reserve the right to buy the tickets.

They call it a donation, even though every single one of us apparently decided to donate the exact same amount, or lose our tickets. But that allows us to call it a tax deduction.

It's hard to call that honest, or cheap.

In fairness, Michigan was the last of the top 20 programs to adopt a seat license program, in 2005.

It started gradually, and left endzone fans alone.

But this week, Michigan pushed the seat license for the best tickets up to $600, and even people in the endzone will have to cough up $150 per ticket, just for the right to buy them.

In the past decade, the total cost of my two tickets on the ten-yard line has more than tripled, to over $1,700, which makes you wonder just how we got here.

Terry Johnston / Flickr

The people who sell bowl games need us to believe a few things:

  • Their games are rewards for great seasons;
  • They offer players and fans a much-wanted vacation;
  • The bowls are non-profits, while the schools make a killing. 

These claims are nice, and would be even nicer if they were true.

Forty years ago, college football got by with just eleven bowl games.

The 22 teams they invited were truly elite, and so were the bowls – like the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and The Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl.

When your team got into a bowl game back then, you knew they’d done something special.

But the number of bowls has more than tripled, to a staggering 35, including such timeless classics as the The Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl, and the legendary Taxslayer.com Bowl.

MGoBlog / flickr

This time last year, Brady Hoke was the darling of Michigan football fans. 

He’d charmed everybody at his first press conference, then led a team that had averaged just five wins a year to a 10-2 regular-season record, with thrilling wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska and arch-rival Ohio State.

Then he capped it all off with an overtime victory in the Sugar Bowl. 

The man could do no wrong.

When he referred to injuries as “boo-boos” and Ohio State as “Ohio,” fans did not conclude he was an ignoramus who knew nothing about the greatest rivalry in sports, but a motivational genius, who understood exactly what the duel was all about. 

West Point Public Affairs / flickr

On Veterans Day, we generally honor our Veterans.

It’s a good idea, for lots of reasons: they served our country, often in unpleasant places, and in great danger, to keep the worst of the world away from our homeland. 

My grandfather was a New York dentist who volunteered at age 39 to hop on a ship in the Pacific during World War II. 

My dad graduated from medical school, then enlisted in the U.S. Army, which sent him and his new bride to Fulda, Germany, to guard the border.     

z.duffy / flickr

Whether your candidates won or lost this week, we can all rejoice that it’s finally over. 

Or, we think it is.  We can’t be sure anymore, can we? 

All this made me ponder the relative craziness of politics versus sports. I got to thinking: Which is sillier?  Playing politics, or playing sports? 

As silly as sports are – and I seem to devote half my commentaries to that very subject – after watching the 2012 campaigns, I can tell you, it’s not even close: Playing politics is sillier, in a landslide.

user: Michael Knight /flickr

Last week, the Ann Arbor Pioneer high school football team went across town to play long-time rival Ann Arbor Huron.  It wasn’t the players’ performance during the game that made news, however, but the coaches’ behavior afterward.  And the news wasn’t good.

Ann Arbor Pioneer came into the annual rivalry with Ann Arbor Huron, sporting a solid 4-3 record and a good chance to make the playoffs.  Huron hadn’t won a game all year, and was simply playing out the season.  The only stakes were bragging rights – and even those weren’t much in question.

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