The year in sports, 2013, started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.
The NHL hadn’t played a game since the Stanley Cup Finals that spring. The 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.
On one side, you had NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, widely considered the worst commissioner in sports today – and maybe ever – who gets booed by the fans whenever he shows up. On the players’ side, you had union chief Donald Fehr, who led the baseball players union to cancel the 1994 World Series.
Well, you can guess what happened: a game of chicken between two stubborn leaders bent on self-destruction.
Fortunately, a government mediator – yes, you heard that correctly – saved the day, and hockey resumed. All of it only goes to prove my theory: hockey is the greatest sport, run by the dumbest people.
Things picked up after that.
Ann Arbor’s own Harbaugh brothers, John and Jim, coached their teams into the Super Bowl. Their dad, Jack, coached under Michigan legend Bo Schembechler, and Jim was his star quarterback, and played in the NFL. But on this day, John – the older, quieter, less celebrated brother – was the star, with his Baltimore Ravens holding off Jim’s San Francisco 49ers, 34-31.
The bigger surprise: On the one day we actually look forward to watching TV ads, they were so bland and boring and just plain bad, we had no choice but to turn our attention to the actual football game.
Michigan basketball coach John Beilein, the eighth of nine kids, started his career when he literally climbed out of a sanitation sewer to teach high social studies and coach three sports. Four decades and eight teams later, the 60-year old coach led his Wolverines to the NCAA Final Four, then the finals. It was the feel-good story of the spring.
After Michigan fired its last four basketball coaches, three in the wake of scandals, Michigan just might have finally gotten the right guy. He just took a little while to get there.
Andy Murray became the first British tennis player to win Wimbledon since 1936, and the first Scotsman since 1896 – something to savor.
Jim Leyland’s Detroit Tigers won the division title for the fourth time in eight years, then retired. He had plenty of critics, but I couldn’t help but notice his teams always won. Everywhere. In the minors. In the majors. In the National League. In the American League. At every level, in eight different states, and five different decades. Leyland must have done something computers can’t. I’m glad that still matters.
Ohio State University president Gordon Gee’s ability to put money in the bank was equaled only by his ability to put his foot in his mouth. In politics, they say, when your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, don’t grab the gun. His final gaffe: “The Fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell the rest of the week. You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday, and so, literally, I can say that.” Yes, and so, literally, Ohio State can ask you to leave.
The NCAA decided to reduce the sanctions against Penn State’s players, who didn’t know who Jerry Sandusky was until he was arrested. The same month, Grambling’s players boycotted a mid-season game. College players have no power, until they sit down. Then they have all the power.
The Michigan football team’s dreams of a division title ended with five league losses. The Wolverines best game was a one-point loss to hated Ohio State, the first time I have ever seen Michigan fans feeling better about their team after a loss than before it.
While the Wolverines were stumbling, up the road Michigan State quietly won the division to face those same Buckeyes, leaving Wolverine fans to wish for the lights to go out, a la the Super Bowl. No luck. The Spartans beat the Buckeyes 34-24, to win their first trip to the Rose Bowl in a quarter century.
In the 80th annual Mud Bowl, played in a mucky swamp in front of Michigan’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, an estimated 2,000 fans showed up to watch. But it’s hard to say, because the Mud Bowl doesn’t have turnstiles, ticket scanners or seat licenses – or TV timeouts, for that matter. It was cold, it was chaotic, it was crazy, but the pure energy pulled the crowd in, just as it surely did when students played the first game in 1869.
The players weren’t battling for money or fame, just pride. They showed all of us why football had caught on in the first place. It was a nice reminder.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!