2012 was a remarkable year in many ways, and the sports world was no exception.
Just a few hours into the New Year, Michigan State and Michigan both won bowl games in overtime, and both finished with eleven wins. A good start.
Not all the news was happy, of course. We said goodbye to some legends. Budd Lynch, who lost his right arm in World War II, announced Red Wing games for six decades, right up to his death this fall, at 95. Another Bud, VanDeWege, ran Moe’s Sports Shops in downtown Ann Arbor for 46 years, turning thousands of Michigan fans into friends. He passed away at 83.
We also lost Bob Chappuis, another World War II hero whose plane was shot down behind enemy lines. He returned to lead Michigan to a national title and a Time magazine cover. “Everybody says we’re heroes,” he told me. “But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?”
The most watched funeral was Joe Paterno’s, the longtime football coach at Penn State. His life ended on January 22, but the debate over his legacy is very much alive.
The New York Giants won their fourth Super Bowl, despite finishing the regular season at an anemic 9-7. Then the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings won their first Stanley Cup, despite being the eighth and last team in the Western Conference to qualify for the playoffs. Both titles confirmed a simple contrast to college sports, where the regular season actually matters.
In the NBA, the Miami Heat won their title the old fashioned way: They bought it, by getting LeBron James – another reason I prefer college sports.
If I needed a third reason, the NHL provided it this season – which, you might have noticed, hasn’t started. But then, you might not have noticed, which is why the NHL cannot afford to cancel another season. Like I always say: hockey’s the best sport, and the worst league.
The European Ryder Cup golf team trailed the United States, 10-6, on the final day, then completed the most stunning comeback in the competition’s 85-year history. Then they sang, “O-Le, O-Le O-Le O-Le!” for a month.
Overseas, Americans had better luck. 16-year old gymnast Gabrielle Douglas became the first black woman to win Olympic gold in the all-around competition. Then she handled criticism about her hair – yes, her hair – with the same skill she handled the balance beam. You go, Gabby.
2012 marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX, one of the most powerful pieces of legislation ever passed. To see the results, you need only check out Carol Hutchins’ Michigan softball team: 15 Big Ten regular season titles in 20 years – while graduating all her players. Simply, sports at its best.
Another example: after the NCAA hit Penn State with the worst sanctions in years, everybody said they were dead. But the seniors – not the school’s president or lawyers or PR people – stood up and said, “This program was not built by one man, and it's sure as hell not going to get torn down by one man.” They finished their season by winning eight of their final ten games.
I asked them if they were disappointed they couldn’t go to a bowl game. They said, No, they were not disappointed to miss a trip to Boise or El Paso over the holidays just so a few bowl reps in ugly sport coats could line their pockets. They didn’t need a bowl ring to tell them what they’d done.
At the end of this bizarre year, those guys might have been the biggest winners. And you would never have guessed that on January first.