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.

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.”

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.

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.
West Point / Flickr

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.   

A typical student's view inside 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.

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.

Ford Motor Co.

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.


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.


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.

The Wolverines taking the field in 2009. They enter this season with 90-to-1 odds at the championship, but fans hope Harbaugh can turn them around.
flickr use Anthony Gattine /

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 / 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.


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.