2012 was a remarkable year in many ways, and the sports world was no exception. Here’s a look back on the sport year’s best and worst – and just plain silly.
Just a few hours into the New Year, Michigan State and Michigan both won January bowl games over ranked teams in overtime, and both finished with 11 wins – Michigan’s best record since 2006. A good start to the new year.
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 the great Bob Chappuis, another World War II hero whose plane was shot down over Italy, behind enemy lines. He hid for weeks, then returned to lead Michigan to a national title. Along the way, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Try to sing his praises, however, and he’d wave you off. “Everybody says we’re heroes,” he told me, with a twinkle in his eye. “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 Jan. 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 counts.
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, because it’s the NHL, you might not have noticed its absence at all, which is why the NHL cannot afford to cancel its second full season in nine years. 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 about a month. Well, fair enough. That’s what happiness sounds like.
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. Of course, the beam might have been smarter than her critics. 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 their program was dead. But the seniors – not the school’s president or trustees 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, the last an overtime thriller over Wisconsin, which clinched the Big Ten title the following week to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
I asked a few of the seniors if they were disappointed the NCAA had banned them from going to a bowl game. They chuckled, and 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 chintzy ring from a chintzy bowl game to tell them what they’d done.
At the end of this bizarre year, those men might have been the biggest winners. And you would never have guessed that on January first.
About the writer: John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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