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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.

Bacon is the author of the upcoming book “Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football.”

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

 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.

Last week, Michigan men’s basketball team traveled to take on Northwestern. For years, that trip amounted to a fun field trip for the Wolverines, a chance to pad their stats before taking on the Big Ten’s big boys.

Not this year. The Wolverines and the Wildcats both entered the game in the top half of the league, and on the verge of an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

The 2008 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings pose for a group photo on the ice of the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
Michael Righi / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Detroit Red Wings have been one of the most successful franchises in any sport for a quarter century, by just about any measure: victories, titles, attendance, profits, and even respect – from fans, players, and executives.

Most sports fans are happy just to see their team make the playoffs. But the Red Wings made the playoffs for 25 straight seasons – a league record.

Derrick Walton Jr.'s Wolverines beat Wisconsin last night.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Michigan’s basketball team, led by two strong seniors, was expected to return to the NCAA tournament this year, for the seventh time in coach John Beilein’s tenth year. But after the Wolverines dropped three of their first four Big Ten games, few would have taken that bet.

Tom Brady in 2009, quarterback for the New England Patriots.
Keith Allison / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady just won a record fifth Super Bowl Sunday night. He’s now being called the greatest of all time. But you wouldn’t have guessed that 25 years ago, when Brady had to fight for playing time on his high school junior varsity, a team that had not scored a touchdown all year.

John U. Bacon

Today, big time college football coaches are media stars, with thousands of followers on Twitter. They’re rich and famous, whether they should be or not. Even assistant coaches are millionaires. But it wasn’t always that way.

This week in Ann Arbor a few hundred people gathered to remember a college football coach who wasn’t rich or famous. But he’d earned the respect of everyone there.

Former Michigan hockey player Scott Matzka drops the puck at center ice to start the alumni game.
Michigan Hockey

The most compelling sports story of the week was not the NFL playoffs, the college football playoffs, the NBA, or the NHL. It wasn’t even televised.

On Saturday night, the Red Wing alumni team took on a squad of former University of Michigan players. It was just an exhibition, which only mattered to those who thought it mattered. But 2,000 folks did, because it mattered a great deal to a former Michigan star named Scott Matzka

First, the good news: A hearty four college football teams from the state of Michigan were invited to play in bowl games this winter: the University of Michigan, plus Eastern, Western and Central Michigan. The only top-tier team not to qualify: Michigan State, which fell all the way from a top-four spot in last year’s playoffs to a dismal 3-9 record.

Now, the bad news: All the teams from Michigan lost.

They used to play the Cotton Bowl game in the Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas. Not anymore. It's now played in the AT&T Stadium.
user bmendez68 / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

It’s college bowl season, and around these parts, that can only mean one thing: Rumors of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh going to the NFL!

Of course, that seasonal rumor comes with many other traditions, including ridiculously irresponsible click-bait stories based on absolutely nothing, everyone freaking out because of it, and the whole thing amounting to zero. ‘Tis the season – and will be every season Harbaugh is Michigan’s coach, any NFL team needs a coach, and any reckless reporter needs a few thousand more Twitter followers.

Game of the century

Dec 2, 2016

The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has long been considered the nation’s best.

But for all the great Michigan-Ohio State games, the two teams never entered The Game ranked first and second, until 2006 -- The Game of the Century. And despite the fact that the century was only six years old, the game delivered, with Ohio State winning a 42-39 classic.

John U. Bacon

It was supposed to be simple. Before the college football season started, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State were all ranked in the top twelve. The three teams were expected to battle all fall, with the Big Ten East Division title coming down to the Michigan-Ohio State game, and the winner going to the four-team national playoff.

Well, the best laid-plans, and all that. After compiling an amazing 36-5 record over the past three years, the Spartans won their first two games, before losing their next seven. The wheels have all but come off in East Lansing, where they’re just playing for pride.

On Michigan Radio, we don’t normally cover baseball outside the state. But we have to make an exception this week, because the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.

If we don’t talk about this now, we might not get another chance for 108 years. And who knows? I could be gone by then.

Why should you care about either team?

Well, maybe you shouldn’t. These are just games, after all, while we’re in the throes of the most serious election in decades.

Michigan punter Blake O'Neill.
Mgoblog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Last year, football fans witnessed the Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games. For the first time in years, both teams were ranked, revved up, and ready to go.

The Spartans moved the ball much better than the Wolverines, but still trailed Michigan until the last play of the game.

How was that possible?

Because Michigan’s fantastic punter, an Australian named Blake O’Neill, was having the game of his life, pinning the Spartans deep in their own end, time and again.  

Jim Harbaugh arrives in Ann Arbor as Michigan's new head coach in December, 2014. He first arrived in Ann Arbor as a kid in 1973.
MGoBlog / Flickr

Two years ago, the Michigan Wolverines had just lost to Rutgers to post an anemic 2-4 record. Fans were miserable, especially the students, and they showed it by staying home instead of going to the stadium.

Last week, Michigan beat Rutgers 78-0. They’re undefeated, and ranked fourth in the nation. What a difference a couple years make – or one coach, take your pick.

That coach, of course, is Jim Harbaugh, and he’s probably the hottest coach in America.

Textbooks
Danny Nicholson / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Now that the teachers and students are back in school, I can’t resist turning my attention to school sports, one of my favorite subjects.

I am a proud 1982 graduate of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. I can still remember the name of every teacher I ever had. Almost all were very good, and I had more truly exceptional teachers than anyone has a right to expect. I’m still in touch with many of them.

Michigan football players practice in the spring of 2016 at Ford Field.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A few years ago I had the chance to work out with the Michigan football team, for a six solid weeks. I lifted more weights than I any writer should, followed by an ungodly number of sit-ups, pushups and pull-downs.

Just 15 minutes into my first work out, I was sweating like a pig, and panting like a dog. You could have taken my pulse by touching my hair.

It wasn’t long before I was running to the trashcan to get rid of my breakfast.

Clockwise from top right: Jim Harbaugh, Mark Dantonio, Kirk Ferentz, and Urban Meyer.
photos from wikimedia and wikipedia / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Two years ago, the Southeastern Conference was dominant, while the Big Ten looked like a doormat. Experts cited the Midwest economy, and the migration to the South and West. But during opening weekend, the Big Ten teams lost only two games, while the SEC lost 7. The difference is not demographics, but coaching.

Jim Harbaugh didn't like the call.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

It’s seems like eons ago now, but just two years ago, Michigan football coach Brady Hoke seemed poised for a solid season. With eight or nine wins, Hoke’s job would be safe, athletic director Dave Brandon would give him a contract extension, and the Brandon-Hoke Era would continue for many years.

On the West Coast, everybody expected Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers to make their fourth straight trip to the playoffs.

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

Gordie Howe lived so long that most Americans don’t know that he set just about every record there is, he helped the sport expand, he got hundreds of thousands of Americans playing the game, and millions more watching.

Howe was one of nine kids born in a farmhouse in Floral, Sasketchewan – a town so tiny, their post office closed in 1923. During the Great Depression, a neighbor brought over a gunnysack full of used things, including a beat-up pair of skates.

Carol Hutchins.
video screen grab / BTN Network

Under coach Carol Hutchins, the Michigan softball team has won 19 Big Ten titles, and nine in a row -- more than the rest of the Big Ten combined. She has led her team to 18 regional crowns, and made it to the College World Series 12 times in the past 22 years.

But what’s more impressive is how she’s done it.

Since 1995, every player who’s played on Carol Hutchins’ Michigan softball team for four years – which is pretty much all of them – has made it to the College World Series.

Red Wings player hoists the Stanley Cup
Michael Righi / wikimedia commons - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

For a record 25th straight season, the Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs. For the seventh straight season, they didn’t get past the second round.

Well, no matter, Wings fans because whether the Pittsburgh Penguins or the San Jose Sharks raise the Cup, they will be following in your favorite players’ footsteps.

How so?

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus argues a call in 2014.
Keith Allison / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Detroit Tigers entered this season with expectations as big as their payroll. It’s currently at $196 million, the fourth-largest in the major leagues. The only teams who spent more are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox.

You know, big city teams that compete for things like the World Series.

The Tigers might have been paying like the big boys, but they weren’t playing like them.

At a Big Ten event.
Big Ten Facebook page

In 1895, seven university presidents created the Big Ten – the world’s first academically-based athletic conference.

It was a good idea, and caught on across the country.

The conferences they created weren’t just a random group of schools thrown together. They sought kindred spirits, and they were amazingly good at finding them. So good, in fact, that nothing defined our nation’s regions better than these conferences.

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell at the podium at the 2009 NFL Draft, at the Radio City Music Hall, New York City.
Marianne O'Leary / wikimedia commons

  Last week, more than 4,000 people crammed into Chicago’s redundantly named Auditorium Theater to watch NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announce the names of 256 players. Two-hundred-thousand more watched the action on big TVs in Grant Park.

Jim Harbaugh didn't like the call.
MGoBlog / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Mens sana in corpore sano.

Sound mind in sound body.

It’s a simple philosophy, which states that exercise is good for your brain. What was revolutionary a century ago is common sense to us. It’s also the best reason to support school sports, something Americans believe in more than any other culture.

FLICKR USER MGOBLOG / FLICKR

After Tom Izzo graduated from Northern Michigan in 1977, he became the head coach of the Ishpeming High School Hematites, named for one of the minerals they mine in the Upper Peninsula. 

Once the Hematites were driving to play an arch rival, when suddenly the players started yelling, “Coach! You gotta stop the bus! It’s Suds!” Izzo replied, “What’s a ‘suds’?!”

  

The NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis, IN.
Intiaz Rahim / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

This Saturday’s Final Four should be college basketball’s showcase. It features North Carolina and Syracuse, two of the game’s greatest programs.

The North Carolina Tar Heels have won five national titles, and rank near the top of just about every measure that matters. The legendary Dean Smith, one of the most respected coaches in the sport’s history, coached the Tar Heels for 36 years, including a guy named Michael Jordan.

Coach Smith created what they call "The Carolina Way," a shorthand for playing the game right, on and off the court.

John U. Bacon

March Madness is upon us, and it’s a little madder than usual. In the first week, eight teams hit buzzer-beaters. But the real shocker, the one that sent brackets to office trashcans across the country, wasn’t even close.

Michigan State had been a top ten team most of the season, and number one for six weeks. They won the Big Ten tournament with fantastic passing and shooting, arguably the most unselfish team Tom Izzo has ever coached.  

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