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.

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:  

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.”

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!”

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.

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! 

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.

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.’”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.  

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.

Hockey net.
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.  

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.

Super Bowl Hoopla

Feb 11, 2011
user daveynin / Flickr

Forty five years ago, the Super Bowl wasn’t even the Super Bowl.

They called it the NFL-AFL Championship game, until one of the founders renamed it after watching his grandson play with a “High Bouncing Ball” – a super ball.

Tickets were only fifteen bucks for that first game, and they barely sold half of those, leaving some 40,000 empty seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum.   

A 30-second ad cost only $42,000, and they weren’t any different than the ads they showed the previous weekend.

The half-time show featured three college marching bands, including one you might have seen from the University of Michigan.

Over the next couple decades, of course, the event became a veritable national holiday.  Tickets now sell for thousands of dollars, and ads for millions.  The game attracts more than 100 million viewers in the U.S. alone.

For the past three years I’ve had unfettered access to the Michigan football program, from the film room to the locker room, to write a book about what I’ve seen.

Before I walked into that first staff meeting, I thought I knew Michigan football as well as anyone.  But after three years of seeing everything up close, I can tell you this unequivocally: I had no idea.

Last spring the Big Ten Conference added Nebraska, giving the league 12 teams.

So, what do you do -- change the name to the Big 12?  No, because that name's already taken by another conference -- which, naturally, now has ten teams.  So the Big Ten decided to keep its name -- and change everything else.   

To create a new logo, they could ask some corn-fed rubes like you and your friends, but you would probably do something stupid like draw on the Big Ten's 115-year history and come up with something simple, honest, and authentic.  Or you might just pay some art student a hundred bucks to make a new logo, like Nike did, and end up with some swoosh-looking thing, which no one remembers.

"The Cold War" ice hockey game at Spartan Stadium
wikipedia user grosscha

Tomorrow, more than 100,000 frozen fans will watch Michigan play Michigan State at the Big House. Not in football, which happens every other year - but in hockey, thus setting the record for the biggest crowd ever to watch a hockey game - anywhere.

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