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.

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Sports Commentary
7:29 am
Fri March 9, 2012

Madness: Three Big Ten rivals share the title

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.

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Sports Commentary
7:00 am
Fri February 24, 2012

A sad step backward in Michigan football history

Willis Ward and Gerald Ford. "Willis was probably my closest friend on the football team," Ford once said. "We were the leaders." Ward was forced to sit during a 1934 game against Georgia Tech.

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.

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Sports Commentary
7:00 am
Fri February 17, 2012

Hockey from different sides of the rink

The Hamline University Women's Hockey team. Commentator John U. Bacon writes about his experiences assisting a women's hockey team.
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.

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Sports Commentary
7:36 am
Fri February 10, 2012

Reflecting on Super Bowl XLVI

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.

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Sports Commentary
7:33 am
Fri February 3, 2012

National signing day is like game day for college football coaches

Chris Singeltary, the director of player personnel for the University of Michigan's football team, pulls the first signed letter of intent off the fax machine at 7:14 a.m. on National Signing Day.
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.

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri January 27, 2012

Joe Paterno: The noble, and the ignoble

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. 

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri January 20, 2012

Wolverines and Spartans basketball, the rivalry grows stronger

For only the fifth time in the rivalry’s history, Michigan and Michigan State both entered last Tuesday night's contest ranked in the top 20.
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.

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri January 13, 2012

Money is stripping the fun out of college football

"The Granddaddy of Them All" - The Rose Bowl was first played in 1902 between the University of Michigan and Stanford University. Today, the "Granddaddy" is being overshadowed. There are 35 bowl games spread out over a month.
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.

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri January 6, 2012

Michigan football and their bowl games, those who stayed became champions

Both Michigan State and the University of Michigan football teams celebrated bowl wins over their opponents.
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. 

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Sports Commentary
6:00 am
Fri December 16, 2011

A look back at the year in sports

Justin Verlander was one of the good sports stories of the year. Photo - Verlander and Alex Avila receiving awards from Tigers owner Mike Ilitch.
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. 

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Sports Commentary
7:00 am
Fri December 2, 2011

UM vs OSU game not the best, but one of the most important

U of M quarterback Denard Robinson and other teammates celebrate their win over Ohio State with fans in the student section.
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.

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Sports
7:00 am
Fri November 18, 2011

The most powerful people in sports: Joe Paterno and the cult of the college coach

A statue of Joe Paterno stands on the Penn State campus
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.”

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Sports Commentary
7:44 am
Fri November 4, 2011

The game ball goes to "Bump" Elliott

Bump Elliott in 1961. He was the head coach of the University of Michigan Football team before Bo Schembechler.
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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Sports Commentary
6:00 am
Fri October 28, 2011

"Three and Out": Rich Rodriguez's tenure at the University of Michigan

Rich Rodriguez

In the summer of 2008, Rich Rodriguez granted me unfettered access to the Michigan football program so I could write a book.

Three years later the book is finished, and not with a happy ending.

Similar to just about everybody else connected to Michigan football these past three years, I had no idea what I was getting into. 

During my three years following the Michigan football team, the working title of the book changed from “All or Nothing,” to “All In,” to “Third and Long,” before Rodriguez’s last season, and after he was fired, to “Three and Out.”

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Sports Commentary
6:36 am
Fri October 21, 2011

What does it mean to be a "Michigan Man"?

Fielding Yost used the term "Michigan Man" in speeches. Yost on the sideline at right coaching the University of Michigan's 1902 football team against Minnesota.
wikimedia commons

The term “Michigan Man” probably goes back to the day men arrived at Michigan.

But it’s taken more than a few twists and turns since – and not always for the better.

Fielding Yost gave the term “Michigan Man” a boost when he started using it in his speeches.

But the phrase really took off in 1989, when Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler announced he was firing basketball coach Bill Frieder, on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament, because Frieder had signed a secret deal to coach Arizona State the next season.

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Sports Commentary
9:57 am
Fri October 7, 2011

Wildcats Football: Northwestern's miracle season

Fans at a Wildcats football game.
Derek Tam Flickr

The University of Michigan football team plays Northwestern in Evanston tomorrow for the first time since 2007.  The undefeated, 12th ranked Wolverines are seven-point favorites, but beating the Wildcats is no longer the easy game it used to be.  Whatever happens this weekend, it can’t match what happened back in 1995 – one of my favorite sports stories.

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri September 30, 2011

Good times for Detroit's sports teams

The Detroit Tigers are in the playoffs, and the Lions are 3-0.
Keith Allison Flickr

Once in a while something happens that is so unusual, even those who don’t normally pay attention have to stop and take notice.

Haley’s Comet, for example, only comes along once every 75 years.

A leap year only comes around every four years.  And Lindsey Lohan goes to jail – no, wait, that happens every week. 

Well, this week, Detroit sports fans got Haley’s Comet, a leap year, and a clean and sober Lindsay Lohan all wrapped into one:  The Tigers clinched the American League Central Division, and even more shockingly, the Lions won their third straight game. 

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri September 23, 2011

Frenzy of conference realignments threatens things we love about college sports

At the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon. The Big Ten Conference now includes twelve schools.
Big Ten Facebook page

College conferences are going through a major upheaval – perhaps the biggest in the history of college sports.

In the past year, we’ve seen Nebraska join the Big Ten, Colorado and Utah join the Pac-10, and, this week, Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the Atlantic Coast Conference.  DePaul, Marquette and Texas Christian University just joined the Big East.

Which raises the question: Just how BIG is the East?

Big enough to swallow half the Midwest and a chunk of Texas. 

A lot of people who don’t care much about sports seem to care about this.

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Sports Commentary
11:10 am
Fri September 16, 2011

The greatest finish in Big House history

Denard Robinson drops back before he throws the game winning touchdown to receiver Roy Roundtree.
screen grab from mgoblue.com video

What if you had a night game, and nobody came?

Well, that wasn’t the problem.

The game attracted more than 114,000 people, an NCAA record.

To commemorate the event, Michigan wore “throwback jerseys” – which went back all the way to September 10, 2011.  Michigan’s jerseys never had stripes – and when you saw them Saturday night, you appreciated just how wise Michigan’s founders had been.  It was less about tradition than trade.   

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri September 9, 2011

Dedication to Michigan Football runs deep

"The Big House" - Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. This photo was taken in 2010. The scoreboards are bigger now.
Andrew Horne wikimedia commons

With a night game scheduled in Ann Arbor tomorrow for the first time in Michigan football’s 132-year history, the town is buzzing.

But it’s fair to wonder just how we got here.  I think I understand why.

George Will recently wrote that when archeologists excavate American ruins centuries from now, they may be mystified by the Big House in Ann Arbor.  “How did this huge football emporium come to be connected to an institution of higher education? Or was the connection the other way?”

It’s a fair question, one I’ve pondered myself many times.  When I try to explain to foreigners why an esteemed university owns the largest stadium in the country, their expressions tell me it’s – well, a truly a foreign concept.

Ken Burns said our national parks are “America’s best idea.”  If so, then our state universities must be a close second. 

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