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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.

John U. Bacon  views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.

Ways to Connect

Shea Patterson playing for Ole Miss
MGoBlog / Flickr / https://goo.gl/64qT3b

Last season, for only the second time in Jim Harbaugh’s 14-year career as a head football coach, his team took a significant step backward. After leading Michigan to 10-3 records his first two years at Michigan, the Wolverines dropped back to 8-5, capped by a bad loss in their bowl game.

Michigan had great defense, but sputtered on offense, mainly due to sub-par quarterbacks. Of course, when injuries force you to use your back-up, then your back-up’s back-up, that’s gonna happen.

John U. Bacon

This is the Season of Our Discontent. Or it would be, if you attached your happiness to Detroit’s professional sports teams.

Let’s start with the Pistons.

When Bill Davidson bought the team in 1974, the Pistons were bad and getting worse. But Davidson patiently rebuilt the team with the right leaders, and won two NBA titles. Then he hired new leaders, and did it all again, and won another NBA title in 2004. Along the way, they won nine division titles.

John Beilein at the 2018 NCAA Basketball Championship game.
MGoBlog

The Michigan basketball team beat Loyola last weekend and made it to the NCAA finals. That was a minor miracle in itself.

The team had almost no stars – with maybe one future NBA draft pick. They started slowly, with very weak defense, playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules.

Back of a basketball player dribbling
MGoBlog Flickr

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The Michigan Wolverines were on the wrong side of that divide Monday night in San Antonio, Texas. 

Michigan got off to a strong start in the NCAA men’s basketball title game then the Villanova Wildcats ran away with it. The final score was 79 to 62 and gave Villanova its second national championship in three years.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon was at the game. He joined "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou to talk about what went wrong for U of M. 

basketball player shooting near the basket
MGoBlog Flickr

The Michigan Wolverines and the Villanova Wildcats will play for the NCAA men’s basketball championship tonight in San Antonio, Texas. The Wildcats are trying for their second title in three years. The Wolverines are hoping for their first since 1989.

The Michigan's men's hockey team has a pregame huddle.
MGoBlog / FLICKR - http://bit.ly/1f2P1w6

This season, Michigan’s men’s basketball team has enjoyed another great turnaround. After a bad loss to Northwestern in early February, the Wolverines were stuck in the middle of the Big Ten – not the station of Final Four teams. But they haven’t lost since, rattling off a 13-game winning streak. That’s how you get to the Final Four.

It’s a great story – so great, it has eclipsed another great story happening across the parking lot: Michigan’s hockey team has risen from mid-season mediocrity to make the other final four.

NCAA Tournament Bracket
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

I can’t recall March Madness starting with more mayhem.

In the first round alone, the lower-seeded team pulled the upset in eight of 32 games – fully a quarter. And it only got crazier in the second round, when six of 16 lower-seeded teams beat the favorite – which is fully … more than a quarter, I think.

John Beilein (left), Tom Izzo (right)
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

There are a lot of reasons to like the Big Ten basketball tournament this year – and perhaps more not to.

What’s to like? The Big Ten can boast four of the nation’s top 15 teams, more than any other conference, including second-ranked Michigan State, and 15th-ranked Michigan. They’re all doing battle this week.

Figure skating
Queen Yuna / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Twenty years ago, Richard Callaghan helped Tara Lipinski become an Olympic gold medalist — but I was not impressed.

Sure, he can coach Tara, but who couldn't? She can skate. But what about coaching a 33-year old clod who has never been on figure skates before? If Callaghan really wanted to test his coaching skills, I would be his guinea pig.

The ski jump event at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.
Andy Miah / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Two decades ago, I covered the Winter Olympics in Japan, and it was great. But when I gushed about the ski jumping, women’s hockey, and speed skating, my readers had no idea what I was talking about.

I soon figured out why: the folks back home weren’t watching the same Olympics I was. What they did see was tape-delayed, over-produced, and cut short by an endless stream of “up close and personal” profiles, almost all of them Americans.

Brandon Graham in 2008.
MGOBlog

In Sunday’s Super Bowl, most fans figured the New England Patriots would beat the Philadelphia Eagles, led by the heroics of quarterback Tom Brady, who had already won a record five Super Bowls. 

But in the waning minutes, with Brady poised to lead another game-winning drive, a lesser-known Philadelphia player named Brandon Graham broke through the line, trying to get to Brady before he threw the ball.

Belmont Tower at MSU
Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

The local coverage of sexual assaults at Michigan State University seemed to fly under the national radar for months, until hundreds of the victims of former sports doctor Larry Nassar spoke up in court. Now it’s a national headline, and will be for years.

The "Sparty" statue on the MSU campus
Betsy Weber / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I’ve been wondering aloud for more than a year why the Larry Nassar case was not getting national attention. Well, it finally did, and it wasn’t pretty.

Dr. Nassar pled guilty to sexually assaulting ten girls and young women. But his victims numbered more than 100, many of them athletes at Michigan State University.

Let’s be clear: Michigan State is not merely a good school. It is a world-class research university. Everyone I know who went there loved it.

John U. Bacon

College basketball is so corrupt, the FBI itself felt it had to investigate it, busting a bunch of coaches this past fall. But that’s not the case here in Michigan, where two of the sport’s greatest leaders happen to work. It’s also home to one of the game’s most underrated rivalries.

Entering Saturday’s game between Michigan and Michigan State, the Spartans had just snapped their 14-game winning streak -- and lost their number-one ranking with it -- by losing to Ohio State. But they were still ranked fourth, with the best three forwards Tom Izzo has ever had in his 23 years coaching Michigan State, and that’s saying a lot.

Bo Schembechler talks to Jim Harbaugh during a 1985 game against Notre Dame.
Bentley Historical Library

This year, for the first time, the Big Ten failed to place a team in the four-team College Football Playoff. But the league redeemed itself by winning its first seven bowl games – an amazing run. The Big Ten was just one win away from an unprecedented 8-0 bowl record: Michigan versus South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

John U. Bacon

Time to look back on 2017 – but we’ll spare you the serious stuff and stick to sports.

Even in sports, alas, Michiganders waded through a lot of bad news, starting with the passing of Mike Ilitch. He and his wife Marion opened their first Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat in Garden City, Michigan, in 1959. Twenty years later they had built an empire big enough to support a kid’s hockey league that produced NHL players.

By 1982, they bought the long-dormant Detroit Red Wings, drafted a kid named Steve Yzerman, and started a two-decade dynasty that won four Stanley Cups.

Christmas gifts
Alan Cleaver / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Christmas is here once again, right on time.

I can’t say this is that big a deal for me. I’ve seen 53 of them – and really, at my age, if I really need it, I’ve already got it. Why I really need is less stuff, not more of it.

But my view of the holiday flips completely when I think of my son, who’s just two-and-a-quarter. He’s old enough know what gifts are, and asks for “Presents!” almost as often as “Ice cream!”

Because he’s the first grandchild on my wife’s side, and the first in a generation on my side, this kid is spoiled rotten. So, what do you get a kid who already seems to have everything?

Last Christmas we got him a mini-hockey net with mini-plastic sticks. He grabs both sticks, whacks the ball toward the net, and when it rolls wide, he yells, “Gooooooooooaaaalll!” Then he waves the sticks around, until he whacks himself in the head, and starts crying.

We’re working on the fundamentals, but I like the passion.

Mike Lantry kicks a field goal against Ohio State in 1973.
Bentley Historical Library

During every University of Michigan football game for the past few years, they’ve honored a veteran, some going back to World War II. But even by those standards, Saturday’s was special.

User Xanteen / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Americans have become obsessed with concussions, and with good reason. But for medical professionals, it’s a double-edged sword: people are interested, but they also have more misinformation.

For example, concussions last only a week or two, while smaller, more frequent hits can result in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – but the two are often lumped together.

A view across the devastated neighborhood of Richmond in Halifax, Nova Scotia after the Halifax Explosion in 1917. The steamship Imo, one of the ships in the collision that triggered the explosion, can be seen aground on the far side of the harbor.
wikimedia commons

The University of Michigan hockey team started its season last week. But the program started 94 years ago. It was a surprising byproduct of the worst man-made explosion to that point, and of a young man who changed his mind about Americans.

Jim Harbaugh during last week's Penn State game.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

After the Michigan Wolverines lost to Michigan State, they beat Indiana and then traveled to Happy Valley to take on Penn State, looking for a little more redemption.

What a difference a year makes.

Since 1986, college football fans looked forward to hearing the beautiful baritone of John Saunders on ESPN and ABC – but not this year.

I met him two decades ago during a charity hockey game at Joe Louis Arena. We dressed next to each other, started talking, and kept it up for a couple decades.

Ten years ago, John told me he wanted to write books. We started exploring a couple ideas, until September 10, 2011, when John stood up too fast on the set, blacked out, and fell backward on the tile floor, right on the back of his head.

Michigan vs. Notre Dame. The two teams play their final game in 2014.
Michigan Football / Facebook

For the first time in their 119-year football rivalry, Michigan and Michigan State football will play at night this Saturday.

The 7:30 kick-off time excites the recruits, the players, and the students. In other words, young people. The night game bothers many older fans, and worries store owners, university officials, and the police.

True, the late starts can bring a new energy to the game, which it did when Michigan hosted Notre Dame in Michigan’s first ever night game, in 2011. After the Wolverines pulled off an amazing 17-point comeback, the crowd stuck around for 30 minutes, just to cheer.

But older fans don’t like getting in their cars after midnight, especially when many have to drive several hours. Everyone else is worried about how fans will behave after a full day of tailgating. Some restaurant owners are prepared to close their doors if things get out of hand, and the police and university leaders of both schools are working to keep that from happening.  

So why risk it? That one’s easy: Money.

The FBI and NCAA

Sep 29, 2017

FBI undercover agents have been investigating college basketball for two years, and they found everything the NCAA has largely failed to find for decades: coaches paying top recruits through shoe companies. The investigation is ongoing, and the results are only now starting to roll out, so we still have more questions than answers. But we can already be certain of a few things.   

Assistant coaches at the University of Southern California, Arizona, Auburn, and Oklahoma State were arrested for corruption. Not questioned about potential cheating, the way the NCAA does it. Arrested.

MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

I’ve always said the two toughest jobs in this state are not governor, mayor of Detroit, or CEO of General Motors, but goalie for the Red Wings and quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines, because you can never do enough.

Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight with coach Jim Harbaugh during last week's game in the AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Hang around the Midwest long enough and you’ll hear just about every Big Ten fan say, “I love fall!”

It makes a lot of sense when you experience our famously frigid, gray winters, our non-existent springs, and our surprisingly steamy summers.

But in Big Ten towns, life begins anew not in spring, but in fall— when the students and professors return right on schedule, concerts and shows pack the calendar again, and the whole cycle starts over.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mel_Pearson

This week, the University of Michigan did something it hasn’t had to do in 33 years: hire a new hockey coach.

The last time the job opened was 1984. Athletic director Don Canham heard Red Berenson was on campus moving his oldest son, Gordie, into his dorm room. Canham called Berenson to his office, offered him the job for the third time, and Berenson finally took it.

If he hadn’t, it’s not clear who Canham could have hired. After all, the guy Michigan just fired was a failed former high school hockey coach. Michigan was at the bottom of a glorified bus league, with an empty building, and nothing to brag about.

 Red Berenson, coaches the University of Michigan's hockey team.
MGoBlog / Flickr

Gordon “Red” Berenson"  loved the game from the start. When he was a six-year old kid in Regina, Sasketchewan, for Christmas his parent gave him new skates, gloves, and shin pads.

He was so excited, he called his best friend on the party line – at 6 a.m. When his friend’s mom answered, she said, “Do you know it’s 6 a.m.?”

Berenson replied, “Yes -- but this is important!”

He played most of his games outside, where the prairie winds make it feel like you’re skating uphill. By 18 he was so good, the Montreal Canadiens wanted him to turn pro. When he decided to go to the University of Michigan instead, the Canadiens' general manager warned him, “If you go to an American college, you’ll never become a pro.”

Berenson went anyway.

Ninety seconds into his first game at Michigan, he skated end to end and scored his first goal. He scored 78 more, including 43 his senior year, still a Michigan record. He was the best player in the country.

The first part of this story, you probably know.

The Michigan men’s basketball stunk so badly two months ago, just about everyone figured they’d never get to the NCAA tournament in March. They had some talent, but other coaches considered them one-dimensional: all offense and no defense. Worse, they said Michigan was soft and lazy – two things no coach wants to hear about his team.

John U. Bacon

The Michigan men’s basketball team just finished one of the craziest seasons in program history.

After a sluggish start, the Wolverines were in danger of not only missing the NCAA tournament, but even the second-rate National Invitational Tournament.

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