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.

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.

U.S. Olympic Team / Facebook

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.

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.

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.

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
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.

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.

There's money to be made around the passion for Michigan football at Michigan Stadium.
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.

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.

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