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
7:30 am
Fri September 2, 2011

Steve Kampfer hoists the Stanley Cup in Jackson

Steve Kampfer played for the Boston Bruins last season, but after a knee injury, he was just shy of the number of games to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
user slidingsideways Flickr

Steve Kampfer grew up in Jackson, and learned to play hockey well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Michigan.  He was a good student and player on great teams, but few expected Kampfer to make it to the NHL.

What chance he had seemed to vanish in October of 2008, when he was leaving a campus bar.  He started jawing with another student, who happened to be on the wrestling team.  Things got hot, but it was all just words, until the wrestler picked up Kampfer and turned him upside in a single, sudden move – then dropped him head first on the sidewalk. 

Kampfer lay on the sidewalk unconscious, with blood sliding out of his mouth.  His stunned friend thought he might be dead.

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Sports
11:15 am
Fri August 12, 2011

Saying goodbye to an old friend

by Rebecca Williamson flickr.com

It wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to buy a book, there was no Kindle or Nook or amazon.com – or even the internet.  There weren’t even big-chain book stores.  You had to go to one of those narrow stores in mini-malls that sold paperback best-sellers and thrillers and romance novels. 

But then the Borders brothers changed all that. They decided to go big, opening a two-story place on State Street in Ann Arbor.  They stocked almost everything, they gave customers room to relax and read, and they hired people who weren’t just clerks, but readers.

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John U. Bacon
5:56 pm
Thu August 4, 2011

The seeds of Tiger Woods tragic fall might already have been sown

This photo was taken using a Canon EOS-1D Mark III.
user: Keith Allison flicker.com

Tiger Woods has missed most of the season due to his injured left knee. In the past decade, he’s fractured the tibia, torn the ligaments, and had it operated on several times – making it the kind of hamburger more commonly seen on NFL running backs. But he returned this week to play in his first PGA tour event in months. This is big news in the golf world – because without Tiger Woods, there’s barely any golf news at all. Watching golf on TV without Tiger Woods is like…watching golf on TV.

Woods returns ranked 28th in the world – his lowest mark since he was just getting started 14 years ago. So what? The TV ratings will skyrocket. People love him, people hate him – but few are indifferent. His first decade was arguably the greatest any golfer ever had in the history of the game. After winning his 14th major tournament in 2008, the question wasn’t if he would pass Jack Nicklaus’s 18 major titles, but when.

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Commentary
7:30 am
Fri July 22, 2011

Giving teachers the respect they deserve

Commentator John U. Bacon say teachers deserve more respect.
Kevin Wong Flickr

Teachers in our country rarely get the respect they deserve -- a uniquely American pathology. But this year they’ve endured not just indifference, but disrespect – and from Congressmen, no less. Teachers are now blamed not just for falling test scores, but failing state budgets and rising healthcare costs.

There was once a politician who took a different view.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance – what some scholars believe to be one of the three most important documents in the founding of America, along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence – provided funding for public schools and universities. In it, he declared, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

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Sports Commentary
9:12 am
Fri July 15, 2011

Desmond Howard's career at Michigan

Desmond Howard strikes the Heisman pose after he returned a punt for a touchdown against Ohio State in 1991.
desmondhoward.com

Desmond Howard stands about 5-foot-8 – I don’t care what the program said.  When Bo Schembechler moved the Cleveland native from tailback to receiver, it virtually eliminated any chance Howard had to win the Heisman Trophy.

In its first 55 years, only one receiver had ever taken it home.

But then, just playing at Michigan practically knocked Howard out of the running in the first place.  Only one Wolverine, Tom Harmon, had ever won the award – and that was back in 1940.

Schembechler never promoted any player for any award – Heisman or otherwise.  Because, as he often said, “Nothing comes before The Team, The Team, The Team.”  When Bo stepped down in 1990, Gary Moeller took over, and followed the exact same policy.

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Sports
10:07 am
Fri June 24, 2011

Woe, Canada? Go, Canada!

User: dmealiffe flickr.com

Canada might be the only nation on earth that invented its favorite sport, has no other sport that’s even half as popular, and remains arguably the best in the world at playing it. How big is hockey in Canada?  They put the sport on their five-dollar bill.  It has a drawing of kids playing a pick-up game outside, and a quote from a beloved children’s story, “The Hockey Sweater.”  It goes like this:  

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Sports Commentary
6:30 am
Fri June 17, 2011

The gift of friendship on Father's Day

  • An error occurred ingesting this audio file to NPR

My dad grew up in Scarsdale, New York – but, as he’s quick to point out, that was before it became “Scahsdahle.”  His dad told him always to root for the underdog, and my dad took that seriously.

All his friends were Yankees fans, but Dad loved the Dodgers.  A perfect Friday night for him, when he was a young teen, was to go up to his room with a Faygo Redpop, a Boy’s Life magazine – he was on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout – and listen to Red Barber, who wouldn’t say something so prosaic as, “the bases are loaded,” but “the bases are saturated with humanity.”

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Sports Commentary
7:27 am
Fri June 3, 2011

Jim Tressel and Ohio State: Cheating is excused. Losing is not

Jim Tressel resigned as Ohio State's football coach this past Monday.
Avanash Kunnath Flickr

The Jim Tressel era at Ohio State started on January 18, 2001. 

It so happened the Buckeyes had a basketball game that night against Michigan, so it was a good time to introduce their new football coach.  When Tressel stood up to speak, he knew exactly what they wanted. 

He was hired on the heels of John Cooper, whose record at Ohio State was second only to that of Woody Hayes.  But Cooper’s teams lost to Michigan an inexcusable ten times.  Can’t do that.  And you can’t say, “It’s just another game,” either – which might have been his biggest mistake. 

Knowing all this, when Tressel told the crowd, "I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.  The place went nuts. “At last,” they said, “somebody gets it!”

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Sports Commentary
8:10 am
Fri May 27, 2011

The Almighty Cleavers: a softball team built to lose

A softball season to remember.
Zach Chrisholm Flickr

I went to Ann Arbor Huron High School, considered by all objective sources to be the greatest high school in the history of the universe. And one of the things that made it so great was an intramural softball league.

Maybe your clearly inferior high school had one, too.  But the IM softball league at Huron was created and run entirely by students – the burnouts, no less.  That meant the adults, perhaps wisely, wanted nothing to do with it.

So the burn-outs got the park permits – God bless ‘em -- and every clique had a team, with names like the Junior Junkies, the Extra Burly Studs, and – yes – the ‘Nads.  If you pause to think of their cheer, you’ll get the joke.

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Commentary
6:30 am
Fri May 20, 2011

Prom night tip: check those coat buttons

Looking good on prom night.
Aaron Alexander Flickr

It was ninth grade, back when ninth graders still stayed in junior high. 

I had detention. I don’t remember why.  But so did the best looking girl in the class, whom I’ll call Rhonda—because, that was her name.

The catch was, she was dating Benny, the captain of the football team.  But, at detention, I learned there was trouble in paradise.  Oh yes.  They had broken up, with just four days to go before the big ninth grade dance. 

Tragic! 

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Sports Commentary
6:00 am
Fri May 6, 2011

A sports lesson: "We don't need to spike the football"

The flag at Yankee Stadium. Many American's took solace in baseball at the attacks of September, 11th, 2001.
Michael Zanussi Flickr

Sometimes the real world is so overwhelming it sneaks into sports.  One of those times occurred after 9/11, when the crowd at Yankee Stadium sang “God Bless America.”

I’m not very religious, but it sounded right to me. 

It seemed appropriate that that signature moment, when we needed to be together, occurred in our country’s most hallowed arena, the nation’s front porch.

We are probably the most sports-soaked culture in the world. We’re the ones who pay for the Olympics, after all – and I believe our code of conduct when we’re competing often represents our values at their best. 

People like to say sports teaches us how to be aggressive.

But you can learn that through alley fighting.  Any jerk with no regard for others can be aggressive.  Prisons are filled with them.  9/11 was conceived by them.  

So I disagree.

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Sports Commentary
8:53 am
Fri April 29, 2011

Remembering Michigan's swashbuckling football star

Jim Mandich carries the ball during the Woverine's upset of the no. 1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in 1969.
University of Michigan

On Tuesday, the Michigan football family lost another beloved son, Jim Mandich, who died of cancer at age 62.

Regular readers of this space know I’ve had to write a few elegies already this year, and I’m not sure if we can bear another one right now.   

I’m not sure Mandich would want any more, either, beyond his funeral. 

As he told Angelique Chengalis of The Detroit News last fall, after he was diagnosed with cancer, “I said to myself, ‘No whining, no complaining, no bitching. You've lived a damned good life. You've got lot to be thankful for.’”

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Sports Commentary
2:25 pm
Fri April 15, 2011

Michigan Ice Hockey, Shawn Hunwick's Cinderella story

Shawn Hunwick in the goal during the NCAA championship
MGoBlue.com

Most sports fans love a Cinderella story.

I've found an athlete who played the role twice.

Last year, Michigan’s men’s hockey team was in danger of breaking its

record 19-straight appearances in the NCAA tournament – a streak that started before many of the current players were even born.

They were picked to finish first in the league, but they finished a disastrous seventh. 

The only way they could keep their streak alive was to win six straight playoff games to get an automatic bid.

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Sports Commentary
10:03 am
Fri April 8, 2011

Remembering Vada Murray

If you’re not a Michigan football fan, you probably haven’t heard of Vada Murray, but you might have seen his picture.

It’s one of the iconic images of Michigan football, along with Tom Harmon standing in his mud-soaked, torn-apart jersey, Ol’ 98, and Desmond Howard diving to catch a touchdown against Notre Dame -- two Heisman Trophy winners, winning big games.

But the photo I’m talking about depicts Vada Murray and Tripp Welborne soaring skyward to block a field goal.

They were a kicker’s nightmare, but even when they got a hand on the ball, it simply denied their opponent three points -- not the kind of thing that wins you a Heisman Trophy or an NFL contract.

They don’t even keep records of blocked kicks.

But, over two decades later, something about that photo still resonates, perhaps because it captures their effort, their intensity, their passion – all of it spent just to give their teammates a slightly better chance for success.

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Sports Commentary
10:58 am
Fri March 25, 2011

Getting to know the Fab Five

The Fab Five - From left to right, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard.
user skoch 3 wikimedia commons

A lot of this story, you already know:

Five super-talented freshmen come to Michigan, and by mid-season the Wolverines become the first team in NCAA history to start all five freshmen. They get to the final game of March Madness before losing to defending national champion Duke. The next year, they make it to the finals again, but lose to North Carolina when their best player, Chris Webber, calls a time-out they don’t have. 

Along the way they make baggy shorts and black socks fashionable, and import rap music and trash talk from the inner-city playground to the mainstream of college basketball.

It’s been that way ever since.

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Sports Commentary
9:33 am
Fri March 18, 2011

Fennville's Wes Leonard "Never Forgotten"

user blakjakdavy Flickr

On Monday I drove a couple hours to see a high school basketball game in Vicksburg, Michigan – about 20 minutes south of Kalamazoo.  The Class C regional semi-final pitted Schoolcraft against Fennville.  Both schools were undefeated – but that wasn’t why I was going.

Two weeks ago Fennville lost its star center, Wes Leonard, just minutes after the last regular season contest. Leonard had made the game winning shot, and the Fennville fans rushed the court and hoisted their hero onto their shoulders.

Then, just seconds later, the truly unthinkable happened: Wes Leonard’s enlarged heart gave out, and he collapsed, right on the court.  Before midnight, the town pastor emerged from the hospital to tell the crowd Wes Leonard had died.

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Sports Commentary
10:49 am
Fri March 11, 2011

Ohio State's Jim Tressel and the NCAA: the sheriff is now the saloon keeper

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. Ohio State has suspended the coach for two games next season.
user johntex wikimedia commons

It looks like Jim Tressel has gotten himself into a bit of hot water.

That’s why his boss, athletic director Gene Smith, flew back to make sure everyone said they were “taking responsibility” – a phrase which changed some time in the last decade, and now means the exact opposite.

It was fine theater.  

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Sports Commentary
4:11 pm
Thu March 3, 2011

Earl Boykins: The little guy that outlasted them all

Earl Boykins with the ball when he played for the Denver Nuggets. He now plays for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Jeramey Jannene Flickr

Eastern Michigan University had a very strong basketball team in 1996.

The Eagles were so good they stunned the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 75-60.

They had nation’s second-leading scorer - and their program listed his height at 5-foot-8 inches.

This, I had to see. 

I watched Earl Boykins and his teammates torch Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Ball State.

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Sports Commentary
4:31 pm
Thu February 24, 2011

Remembering Fred Fragner

Fred Fragner was a parent John U. Bacon met while coaching his son's hockey team.
Dean Michaud Flickr

Whenever I talk to a high school coach who quit, they always say the kids were great, but the parents drove them crazy.

It doesn’t matter what sport.  

But when I coached the Ann Arbor Huron High School hockey team, I was lucky.

Yes, getting to know the players was the best part, and now, seven years after I stepped down, I’m going to their weddings.

What I didn’t expect, though, was becoming lifelong friends with their parents, too.  

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Sports Commentary
4:55 pm
Thu February 17, 2011

February, the slow season for sports

Watching channel zero
user greenkozi Flickr

Last week my beloved television went POOF! It was seven years old, or 14 in sports writer years.  

So, what great sports events did I miss?

Well, I can’t be sure, of course, but I’m willing to bet… not much.

Sports writers complain about the dog-days of summer, when all we have to write about is tennis and Tiger and the Tigers – and, that’s about it. But there’s a lesser-known slow season for sports scribes, and it's called February.

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