Column: Values Before Victories

UM's Berenson and Beilein teach the lessons that matter
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The Michigan basketball team recently lost to Michigan State by one point, all but ending the Wolverines’ chances to return to the NCAA tournament. The Michigan hockey team faces Michigan State this weekend, and they need a sweep to improve their fading chances of getting back to the tournament themselves.

For Michigan fans, this is the Winter of Their Discontent. Provided, that is, only wins and losses count.

But the head coaches of both teams did notch a couple moral victories last week. Yes, they’ve lost some battles this season, but they’re still winning the war.

On Thursday, the general manager of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, Dean Lombardi, had some sharp words about legendary Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson and his program. Lombardi – no relation to the great Vince Lombardi in any way, shape or form, as you’ll see – said, “Red Berenson doesn’t coach. It’s ‘Do what you want.’ Michigan is the worst.”

Now, Berenson doesn’t need me or anybody else to defend him or his record – but I can’t resist.

Forget, for a moment, Berenson’s two NCAA titles, 18 league titles and record 19-straight NCAA tournament appearances, not to mention the 20 All-Americans he’s produced.

The crux of Lombardi’s claim that Michigan doesn’t develop players can be refuted simply by looking at guys like Mike Stone, a walk-on who rose to become the team’s Most Valuable Player, on a team loaded with future NHLers. Or Mike Knuble, who arrived a lightly regarded freshmen from East Kentwood, Michigan, and left an All-American, a U.S. Olympian and now a 12-year NHL veteran, who skates on a line with the best player in the game, Alexander Ovechkin. Then there’s John Madden, who wasn’t even drafted as a freshman – which is rare at Michigan – before he came to Ann Arbor, and is now in his 11th NHL season for the New Jersey Devils, where he’s served as a captain and has won two Stanley Cups. For the record, that’s two more than Lombardi has won in over two decades as an employee of three NHL teams.

It was such a stupid comment, Berenson did not bother to dignify it with a response. As they say in politics, if your critic is busy firing bullets into his own foot, don’t grab the gun.

But when the player who inspired Lombardi’s remarks, Jack Johnson – a former Michigan star who now plays for Lombardi’s L.A. Kings – heard about them, he told his coach he wasn’t getting dressed for their home game that night until Lombardi came down to apologize to him in person. Lombardi did just that, 15 minutes before warm up, and Johnson got dressed.

You’ve got to admire Johnson’s conviction. He’s a great player, but Lombardi can send him any time he wants to any team he wants, including the minors. Johnson’s courageous stand, with little to gain and a lot to lose, tells you something about the kind of players that Michigan’s coaching staff develops.

At the same time this was playing out, Michigan basketball star Manny Harris mistakenly thought one of his teammates had taken a cheap shot at him during practice. Harris started a fight. When head coach John Beilein tried to break it up, Harris only made things worse. Beilein decided to leave Harris at home when the team traveled to play a crucial game the next day against 13th-ranked Purdue. With their star player out, Michigan lost by ten.

Harris apologized to his coach, his teammates and the fans. He returned Tuesday night to play a great game against fifth-ranked Michigan State, but the Wolverines fell just short. Michigan lost – but Harris grew up.

I’m just old-fashioned enough to believe that still matters.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Priya
    January 29, 2010 at 10:19 am | permalink

    Great article Mr. Bacon, but John Madden is currently playing for the Chicago Blackhawks on a one year contract.

  2. January 29, 2010 at 10:38 am | permalink


    You are, of course, correct! Serves me right for spending too much time with my nose in the Hockey Encyclopedia, and not enough with my eyes on Hockey Night in Canada.

    Thanks for the fix.


  3. By Tom Whitaker
    January 29, 2010 at 11:34 am | permalink

    Two of my favorite Michigan coaches who quietly go about the business of developing well-rounded human beings, not just excellent athletes. This is what college athletics should be all about.

    Carol Hutchins is also cut from the same cloth. It’s truly inspiring to watch these three do their jobs, year after year.

    I hope Mr. Brandon keeps them on as long as they want to stay.

  4. By falmer
    January 29, 2010 at 8:54 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bacon, can you please cite your source regarding JJ’s pre-game hold-out until Lombardi apologized. No other sources have reported on this detail of the story. Frankly, it seems out of character for JJ to make such a demand, for coach Murray to agree to pass it along, and for DL to acquiesce. Is this incident verifiable, or are you just making it up for the reading pleasure of your local yokels?

  5. January 30, 2010 at 10:27 am | permalink

    Mr. Falmer,

    Although you can see from other articles and books I’ve written that I use anonymous sources very rarely, in this case it was unavoidable because I learned about that particular scene during a private conversation with someone who did not want to be quoted. I’ve shared the source – as reliable as they come — with Mary Morgan, the publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. But a promise of anonymity is a promise, and I’m honor-bound to keep it.

    Second, if Jack Johnson’s demand seems out of character to you, you probably did not read Johnson’s widely quoted response to his general manager’s statements. It appeared in The L.A. Times, among other outlets.

    “[Berenson] is one of the finest coaches and men that I’ve met. For my general manager to rip me as a person and criticize me as a person and as a player and call me an awful hockey player is irresponsible and unprofessional.”

    As for your tone in general, and your barb about “local yokels” in particular – referring, apparently, to Ann Arbor readers, among the best educated in the country – I’ll take a page from Red Berenson’s playbook: When faced with a critic who’s firing bullets into his own foot, don’t grab the gun.

    -John U. Bacon