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.

Budd Lynch began his career with the Red Wings at Detroit's Olympia Arena.
Library of Congress / wikimedia commons

His parents named him Frank Joseph James Lynch—but everybody knew him as Budd. 

He passed away this week, at the age of 95.  No, you can’t call that a tragedy, but you can call it a loss—one thousands are feeling. 

In a week that included no Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25, the idiotic NHL lockout and, far worse, Jerry Sandusky’s sentencing, I’d rather spend my few minutes with you honoring a man who lived as long as he lived well. 

Lynch was born in Windsor, Ontario, during World War I.  

Michigan vs. Notre Dame. The two teams play their final game in 2014.
Michigan Football / Facebook

Notre Dame announced this week the school is suspending its century-old rivalry with the University of Michigan after the 2014 season.

The only constant is change. 

Yeah, yeah.  We know that – and in case we didn’t, there’s always some office blowhard too eager to say it, as if it’s some profound truth.

But that’s why, the more things change, the more we appreciate things that don’t.

When Carole King sang, “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more?” she probably wasn’t talking about NFL franchises, but she could’ve been.

Denard Robinson avoids a rush from the Fighting Irish.
Michigan Football / Facebook

Last week, the University of Michigan football team beat up University of Massachusetts, 63-13.

Okay, U-Mass was pretty bad. Even lowly Indiana crushed them.

But the Wolverines did exactly what they were supposed to do, and did it very well. Many Michigan fans complained anyway.

This is not uncommon.

A few years ago, Michigan blew out 15th-ranked Notre Dame team 38-0, the first shut out over the Irish in over a century. The next day, I challenged listeners on a sports talk show to find something to complain about.

Reunion 2012

Aug 24, 2012
user collegeyearbooks / MorgueFile.com

Lots of people look forward to high school reunions, others dread them, and still others just avoid them altogether.

My brother falls squarely into the third category. As he says, “If I was that eager to see you, I wouldn’t have waited five years.”

Now that we have Facebook, we already know who gained weight and who went bald, so what else do we really need to see? Maybe that’s why reunion attendance nationwide has dropped dramatically.

Michael Pead / Wikimedia Commons

The London Olympics features 26 summer sports, with 39 disciplines, and 302 separate competitions, in a desperate attempt to get everyone to watch. 

So you’ve got the Ancient Sports, or the Events No One Watches Anymore, like horse riding, rifle range, and archery -- also known as, Things You Did in Summer Camp, But Stopped Doing After You Learned How To Drive and Talk To Girls.  Why not include making moccasins and key fobs?     

Michigan Olympians

Jul 20, 2012
Betsey Armstrong
Michael Larson / USA Water Polo

In the opening ceremonies next week, when the United States’ flag bearer declines to dip the Stars and Stripes for Queen Elizabeth, he or she will be following the lead of Ralph Rose, a Michigan alum who refused to lower the flag in the 1908 London Olympics, for King Edward VII. 

Rose explained, "This flag dips for no earthly king." 

Wolverines have also made their mark on the podium, winning 138 medals, including 65 gold. This year, Michigan is sending 26 athletes and coaches to London, who will compete in nine different sports. 

The list includes Betsey Armstrong, a graduate of Ann Arbor Huron High – widely considered the greatest high school in the history of Western Civilization —who will play goalie for the water polo team.

Tiffany and Jeff Porter both set hurdling records at Michigan, before getting married – even as Tiffany was becoming a doctor of pharmacy. 

There’s Connor Jaeger, an engineering student who walked onto the swimming team, and finished as a three-time NCAA All-American.  

There’s Sam Mikulak, a gymnast, who broke both ankles at a meet last year on the same landing.  He finished his remaining events – and learned afterward he’d fractured both ankles.  Not all tough guys play football.

And there’s Jerome Singleton.  When he was just one year old, doctors amputated his right leg below the knee.  He went on to become an engineering student, and a world-class paralympian – Michigan’s first.  

Go Blue / The University of Michigan

A committee of 12 university presidents recently approved a plan to create a four-team playoff for Division I college football – the last major sport to have one.  That has Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon wondering what good will come of it – if any. 

Well, it’s finally upon us.  No, not the apocalypse – Mayan calendar be damned – but a bona fide, Division I, college football playoff.

The University of Michigan's Bob Chappuis hurdling a tackler.
Michiganensian (1947) / University of Michigan

One of Michigan Football's most famous players died earlier this month. Bob Chappuis played for the Wolverines in the '40s. He was a College Football Hall of Famer and a World War II hero. But that’s not how Chappuis described himself.

You can read about Bob Chappuis’s heroics as a World War II tailgunner, or as a Michigan Wolverines tailback, just about anywhere -- from his Time magazine cover story in 1947, to his obituary in the New York Times last week.  But my favorite stories are the ones he told his granddaughters.

I met Chappuis in 2000, while writing a story about his famous Michigan football team.  But I really got to know him when I coached his grandson Bobby’s high school hockey team.When Bobby went to Culver Academies for a post-grad year, I joined the family to see him graduate.

We all relaxed in a hotel suite, eating and drinking, while Chappuis’s teenage granddaughters goaded him to tell stories.  He could not refuse them, but he shared stories you couldn't find in magazines -- like when his father told him he could go to any school he wanted -- except Ohio State.  

Chappuis skipped the part about leaving college to volunteer for the Army, where he served as an aerial gunner on a B-25.  But his son interjected to explain how their granddad’s plane was shot down over Northern Italy, forcing the crew to parachute behind enemy lines. 

Chappuis waved it off.  “Everybody says we’re heroes.  But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?”   

He told his granddaughters how they hid in a ditch behind some bushes while Italian soldiers marched by. One of his crewmates grabbed a knife, and motioned to attack. Chappuis grabbed his shoulder, pushed him down and whispered, “They’ve got us outnumbered 30 to 3, and they’ve got guns.  I think you’ve seen too many Hollywood movies.  We are staying put.”

Smart move.  They were rescued by a family, who hid them in their attic.  They buried the Americans’ identifying clothing – but Chappuis drew the line at his Michigan ring.  “This stays with me,” he said. 

Scott Galvin / U-M Photo Services

The University of Michigan softball team won the Big Ten title this year – for the fifth year in a row, and 15th time overall. It went to the NCAA tournament – for the 18th straight season.  Winning titles is what they do.   

And this was not even one of head coach Carol Hutchins’ best teams. 

Running track
Karl-Ludwig G. Poggemann / Flickr

Remember Field Day?

For most of us, it was a hallowed year-end school tradition, right up there with ice cream socials, and signing yearbooks.

The kids loved it, of course, and looked forward to it every year. 

But not at Burns Park, one of Ann Arbor’s oldest, most desirable and most educated neighborhoods – and occasionally, one of its kookiest.

There is a reason many townies jokingly refer to it as “The Republic of Burns Park.”

U.S. National Archives / Flickr

Teresa Bloodman’s son was thrilled to play on his freshman basketball team for two months.  But, when the coach held a third round of tryouts so the football players could come out for the team, he cut Bloodman’s son.

Teresa Bloodman was so livid she sued the school, the district and the state.  She claimed cutting her son was arbitrary, that the lack of a formal appeals process was a violation of due process, and that her son has a constitutional right to participate in school sports.

This week, the University of Michigan celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, with a host of speakers and panels discussing the historic legislation and its impact on girls, women and the United States itself. 

Before Title IX, only one in 30 girls played high school sports. 

Today, more than half do. 

After a single paragraph, and an unforgettable tennis match, that changed our nation forever.

It all started pretty quietly. 

Just a sentence buried in the back of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. 

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

A few weeks ago, I visited Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a famously beautiful city, right on the ocean – but that’s not what I took away from this trip. 

The boat ride from Cape Town to Robben Island is just five miles, and takes only 30 minutes.  But to the prisoners held there, starting in the 17th century, it might as well be on the dark side of the moon.  Only a handful ever tried to escape, and none made it – most notably Makana, a famed 19th century Xhosa leader, who drowned halfway to freedom.    

Oleg Klementiev / Flickr

While I was writing “Three and Out,” the Michigan football players challenged me to join their workouts in the weight room.

I did – and soon discovered it was one of the dumbest decisions of my life – and one of the best career moves.

I’d heard so much about these modern gladiators and their weight room heroics that I wanted to find out for myself just how much harder it really is compared to what the average weekend warrior puts himself through just to avoid buying “relaxed fit” jeans.

The plan was simple: I would work out with these guys three times a week, for six weeks -- “if you last that long,” said Mike Barwis, Michigan’s former strength coach.  But there were four signs that I shouldn’t be doing this.

When I asked Barwis if I should prepare by lifting weights, he said, “No, it’s too late for that!”  Well, that’s one sign.

CBS News Video

Everybody knows Mike Wallace was one of the best journalists of his time – and his time spanned a half-century.

But he also had a great love for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where he wrote for the Michigan Daily, and got his first taste of broadcasting. Back then, that meant the student radio station.   

Sadly, Michigan’s department of journalism was cut in 1979.  But it was survived by something called the Michigan Journalism Fellows – a program that brings a dozen mid-career journalists to Michigan’s campus for a year to give them a fresh start.

George Ruiz / Flickr

Ann Arbor’s Parthenon Restaurant closed last week after almost 40 years at the corner of Main and Liberty. 

For me, it marked more than the passing of a favorite spot, but the end of a time-honored ritual for the guys. 

We filed in, and walked to our favorite table in the back.

A little warmer, and we’d sit outside, but it was still March, so whatya gonna do?

The owners and waiters nodded. They’ve seen us more than a hundred times.

Scott Galvin / UM Photo Services

One of the most unlikely careers in the history of University of Michigan sports ended last weekend, in overtime.

Two years ago, Michigan’s hockey team was in danger of snapping its record 19-straight NCAA tournament bids.

They finished seventh in their league – unheard of, for Michigan.  So, the only way to keep the streak alive was to win six straight league playoff games to get an automatic NCAA bid.

Oh, and they had to do it with a back-up goalie named Shawn Hunwick, a 5-foot-6 walk-on who had never started a college game until that week.  

It didn’t look good.  

But the kid caught fire. 

user huqixiu.co.cc / Flickr

The Big Ten basketball experts knew exactly what was going to happen this season before it even started.  Michigan State would battle for another title, while Michigan would be stuck in the middle, fighting for a tournament bid.  

And that’s exactly how it started.  The Spartans jumped out to first place, and had it all to themselves with just two games left.  The Wolverines spent most of the season in the middle.  

The experts looked pretty smart – until Michigan started mastering head coach John Beilein’s unconventional system.

When Ann Arbor's own George Jewett, an African-American, made Michigan’s football team in 1890, he would not have predicted it would take more than four decades for another black player to follow him.

The biggest reason was Michigan’s head coach from 1901 to 1926, Fielding H. Yost, who had unequaled ambition and ego, and six national titles to back it all up.

But he also had a blind spot: he was a racist.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  His dad fought for the Confederates, after all.  But Yost was surprised decades later when his discriminatory decisions created a national controversy.

It started when he named Harry Kipke Michigan’s next head coach.

Hamline University

I’ve coached high school boy’s hockey teams for almost a decade.  But a few years ago, I spent two years helping out the Michigan women’s hockey team – and I learned a lot more than they did.   

It’s worth noting that I’m comparing only high school boys and college women, based solely on my observations of two hockey teams.  Your mileage may vary. 

My education started on day one.

It’s been five days since the Super Bowl, just enough time to give us a little perspective. Was it a football game? A concert? A competition for the Clio Award? Or some bizarrely American combination of all three?

Let’s start with the least important: The football game. You might have caught bits of it, squeezed between the ads and the show. Those were the people who ran really fast and wore clothes. For the Super Bowl’s first 30 years, most of the games were boring blowouts. I suspect even the players can’t recall the scores. But the halftime shows and the ads were hard to forget, and often featured a member of the Jackson family having his hair ignited or her wardrobe mysteriously malfunction.

screen grab / mgoblue.com

The most important day of the year for a college football coach is not the home opener, the big rivalry game or even a bowl game.  It’s national signing day, which falls on the first Wednesday in February.

On signing day, the end zone is not grass or Astroturf, but a fax machine tray.  Only when a signed National Letter of Intent breaks the plane of that tray does it count.

A couple years ago I got a chance to see the sausage get made – and it’s not pretty.

When an 85-year old man dies, you cannot call it a tragedy.  Sad, yes, but tragic, no.  

But Joe Paterno’s passing might be an exception.  Born in Brooklyn in 1926, he enrolled at Brown University, where he played quarterback. He still holds a school record -- for interceptions -- with 14. 

After graduating, Paterno was supposed to go to law school, but instead followed his coach, Rip Engle, to Penn State.  

His father was beside himself.  “For God’s sake, what did you go to college for?”  That was 1950.  62 years later, that’s where Joe Paterno died. 

mgoblue.com

The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State in football is one of the best in the country.  But it obscures the fact that, in just about every other sport, Michigan’s main rival is Michigan State.

In men’s basketball, there’s no team either school would rather beat than the other.  The problem is, for a rivalry to really catch on, both sides need to be at the top of their game.  Think of Bo versus Woody, Borg-McEnroe and, of course, Ali-Frazier, which required three death-defying fights just to determine that one of them might have been slightly better than the other. 

The Michigan-Michigan State basketball rivalry, in contrast, usually consists of at least one lightweight.  When Michigan got to the NCAA final in 1976, Michigan State had not been to the tournament in 17 years.

Bryan Frank

The college football bowl season has always been a little crazy - but most of that used to be “fun crazy.”

Now it’s “bad crazy.”

Michigan played in the first ever bowl game against Stanford on New Year’s Day in 1902.

The Wolverines won, 49-0 – but didn’t play another bowl game for 46 years.     

Pasadena didn’t host another game until 1916, and no one else sponsored one until 1935, when the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Sun Bowl started, followed two years later by the Cotton Bowl.

The games were just glorified exhibitions, intended to reward a few good teams with a nice trip, and for the Southern cities to promote themselves.

Images from MSU and UM Facebook pages

The Big Ten is still considered one of the nation’s top leagues, despite its frequent belly flops in bowl games. 

This year, the Big Ten placed a record ten teams in bowl games – then watched them drop, one by one. 

And not just in the storied Rose Bowl, but in games like the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, and the Insight Bowl. 

When Iowa got whipped 31-14, I wonder just how much insight they had gained. 

Dave Hogg / Flickr

Former Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren said, “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

But this year, the sports page had plenty of both.

Sad to say, bad news tends to travel faster.

So let’s start with some good news.  In men’s tennis, the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, already one of the best, was joined by a man named Novak Djokovic, who won three majors this year on a gluten-free diet – no joke. 

mgoblue.com

Last week, the Michigan football team beat Ohio State for the first time since 2003. While it wasn’t anything like the half-dozen “Games of the Century” these two rivals have played, I believe it might be one of the most important.

Just a few years ago, ESPN’s viewers called the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry the best. Not just in college football, or all football, but in all sports. Period. 

But this year’s game won’t go down as one of the best. Michigan entered the game ranked 17th, but the Buckeyes hobbled into their annual finale dragging a 6 and 5 record behind them, their worst team since the 1990s.

But all that just made the stakes for Michigan that much higher.

user audreyjm529 / Flickr

College football coaches are far from the richest people in sports, but they could be the most powerful.  That might seem far-fetched, but not to the disciples of Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, and Tom Osborne, among others, who rose to become almost spiritual leaders at their schools.   

At University of Michigan President James Duderstadt’s retirement banquet in 1996, he said being president wasn’t easy, but it came with some nice perks.  He even got to meet the man thousands of people considered God.  “No,” he said, “not Bo Schembechler, but the Dalai Lama.”

Michiganensian

At last week’s Homecoming Game, Michigan had planned to honor one of its great alums, a man named Chalmers Elliott – better known as Bump.

He was an All-American football player and a Big Ten champion coach, but earned greater fame as the athletic director at Iowa, Michigan’s opponent this weekend.

Pneumonia kept the 86-year old legend from making it, however, so we're honoring him today. 

Michigan football has produced a lot of big name coaches and players, but one of the finest men who played and coached for Michigan deserves to be a little bigger.

His name is Chalmers Elliott – which might explain why he goes by “Bump.”

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