sports commentary

Hockey net.
Dean Michaud / Flickr

It’s been a sad week for the University of Michigan hockey program.  Last Friday, Michigan’s first three-time All-American, Wally Grant, passed away, at 86.  Then on Monday, Grant’s teammate, Al Renfrew, who went on to coach the team for 16 years, died at 89.  These two men made great contributions to Michigan hockey’s unequaled tradition.

During World War II, the fortunes of a college hockey team didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  The able-bodied were fighting in Europe and Asia, so Michigan’s roster shrunk.  So did the schedule, from 20 games to eight.  From 1940 to 1943, the Wolverines won exactly five games - total.  The next year, a local newspaper warned, “Michigan May Remove Hockey From Athletic Program.” 

Gordie Howe's Hockey Card at age 43.
Trish Thornton / Flickr

You don’t have to know much about hockey to know about Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. 

This week, we learned his family is “expecting the worst.”  With his days numbered, you’ll be reading a lot about Howe’s hockey heroics.  He set just about every NHL scoring record, and a dozen still stand.  One of the most impressive: he finished in the top five for scoring for two straight decades.

He played in the NHL at 18, and at 51. 

Howe’s heyday paralleled his team’s, and his town’s.

The Wings were a dynasty, winning four Stanley Cups, and nine regular season titles.  No team symbolized the Motor City’s might like the Red Wings. 

Creighton Miller carrying the football for Notre Dame against the 1943 Michigan team. Bob Rennebohm of Michigan (wearing jersey #88) is also pictured.
1944 Michiganensian

Michigan and Notre Dame have the longest running duel among major college powers, and one of the best. But that seems to be coming to an end this Saturday – and with a twist: For the first time, it’s Notre Dame that’s backing out.

The rivalry between Michigan and Notre Dame goes back to 1887, when a band of boys from Michigan took a train to South Bend and literally taught their counterparts how to play the game.  

The 2007 Michigan - Appalachian State game.
user Derrick S. / Flickr

Well, it goes back to 2007, the year the NCAA allowed schools to add a 12th regular season game, for no reason but revenue.

Yes, another shameless money grab on the backs, knees, and skulls of amateur athletes. 

To find an extra opponent, Michigan had to scramble.

When a Division I-AA team called Appalachian State agreed to come to Ann Arbor for a flat fee of $400,000, fans wondered why Michigan had scheduled a team from the second tier for the first time – and, where the heck is that place?

It turns out Appalachian State isn’t even a state.  (I looked it up.)    

Their fight song didn’t instill much fear, either: “Hi-Hi-yike-us.  No-body like us.  We are the Mountaineers!  Always a-winning.  Always a-grinning.  Always a-feeling fine.  You bet, hey.  Go Apps!”

“The Victors,” it was not.

The set of Jeopardy!
U.S. Game Show Wiki


Last night, I tried my luck on the NPR game show, “Ask Me Another.”  It brought back memories – traumatic ones – of my disastrous try out for the Jeopardy! game show 24 years ago.

"I'll take 'Humility' for $100 please, Alex."

"He was one of fifty people to fail the Jeopardy test on June 21, 1990."

"Ah, 'Who was John Bacon?'"

24 years ago, it seemed like a good idea.  There I was, lying on the couch, watching Jeopardy!, and yelling out things like "Millard Fillmore," "The St. Louis Browns" and "Mesopotamia," when they invited anybody who would be in Los Angeles to try out for the show.  Turned out I would be, so I figured, Why Not?   

Why not?  Here’s why: It’s a poor predictor of success on the show, only 3-percent pass it --  oh, and you can’t really study for it.   That’s why.  

user: Marcus Qwertyus / Wikimedia Commons

When Michael Sam told his University of Missouri teammates he was gay before last season, it wasn’t a big deal. It’s a safe bet that NFL teams – who know what kind of gum their prospects chew – already knew this, too. But when Sam came out publicly, it changed the equation. 

The NFL has already had gay players, so that’s not new. But publicly declaring you’re gay is new – and so is the onslaught of media attention.

Bentley Historical Library / University of Michigan

In 1896, the first modern Olympics in Athens staged a marathon. The next year the Boston Athletic Association followed suit. Just 18 men ran that day, with the winner finishing in about three hours – something office workers can beat today.

Most people thought the runners were crazy – if they thought of them at all.

Marathoners don’t care. After winning the 1952 Olympic marathon, Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek said, “If you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”

Greg Meyer knows exactly what Zatopek was talking about. Meyer grew up in Grand Rapids, and enrolled at Michigan in 1973. That spring, Michigan got a new cross-country coach, Ron Warhust, a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, and a hard-earned lesson: “The world doesn't stop because you’re scared.”

Corey Seeman / Flickr

Since I review the year in sports each December, my editor thought, “Hey, why not preview the year in sports in January?!?”

Why not? Because I have no idea what’s going to happen. Nobody does.

That’s why we watch sports: We don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s also why we shouldn’t watch pregame shows: everybody is just guessing. 

That said, if Michigan Radio wants to pay me to make wild, unsupported guesses – then doggonnit, that’s what I’ll do. 

Let’s start at the bottom.

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Detroit Tigers

The year in sports started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.

The NHL lockout started the way these things usually do: The players thought the owners made too much money, and the owners thought the players made too much money.  And, of course, both sides were dead right.

user: wfyurasko / Flickr

In November of 2011, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on forty criminal counts, including the sexual assault of eight boys over a fifteen-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State’s football building.

www.bestsportsphotos.com

A lot of amateur athletes think they’re not that far from the people who play their sports for a living. 

Well, when Michigan Radio Sports commentator John U. Bacon tried out for Detroit’s minor league hockey team, he found out that just isn’t so – and he found out the hard way.

A few years ago – okay, a bunch of years ago – I bit on a bet I never should have touched. 

I was writing for the Detroit News, and a top minor league hockey team called the Detroit Vipers played at the Palace. 

So, I got to thinking: just how big is the gap, really, between the pros, and beer league players like me?

Good question. And even better if I didn’t try to answer it.  But, being the hard-hitting investigative journalist that I am, I had to go down to the Palace, and find out.

U-M Bentley Historical Library

In the Michigan hockey program’s 90-year history, some 600 players have scored more than 10,000 total goals.  But the man who scored the team’s very first goal 90 years ago, might still be the most impressive one of the bunch. 

This is the story of Eddie Kahn.

user AndrewHorne / Wikimedia

A 'seat license' is a fee fans pay just to reserve the right to buy the tickets.

They call it a donation, even though every single one of us apparently decided to donate the exact same amount, or lose our tickets. But that allows us to call it a tax deduction.

It's hard to call that honest, or cheap.

In fairness, Michigan was the last of the top 20 programs to adopt a seat license program, in 2005.

It started gradually, and left endzone fans alone.

But this week, Michigan pushed the seat license for the best tickets up to $600, and even people in the endzone will have to cough up $150 per ticket, just for the right to buy them.

In the past decade, the total cost of my two tickets on the ten-yard line has more than tripled, to over $1,700, which makes you wonder just how we got here.

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?     

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. 

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.

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. 

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