Greg Eno

Before the Internet, Sports Scores Were a Pay Phone Away

In All Sports on December 14, 2014 at 5:31 pm

I was at a public gathering one evening and I needed to find out the score of a game. So I used a phone.

Only, I didn’t bring up the Internet and go to ESPN.com or the like; I placed a call. And it wasn’t my phone.

No, not to my bookie. I never made enough dough to have a bookie.

I called SportsPhone.

We’re talking circa the mid-to-late 1980s.

Anyone reading this under the age of 40 may not know of what I speak. It may as well be written in hieroglyphics to those folks.

Wherever there was a public phone (remember those?), there was SportsPhone. We’re talking the days before everyone had a “mobile device.”

SportsPhone was a lovely invention. Not lovely enough to not be made extinct by the advances of technology, but in that regard SportsPhone is hardly alone.

Oh, how I miss those days.

There was excitement, there was drama. I’m not talking about the games themselves; I mean in terms of just waiting for the score.

SportsPhone worked like this: you dialed into a number (1-976-1313) and on the other end you were greeted by the (fresh) recording of a fast-paced, breathless voice of someone like Dave LewAllen or Rich Kincaide, who would blast through the scores of all the major sports matches of the night. Some brief mentions of top stories were thrown in as well.

The recordings were updated every 10 or 15 minutes, so you were getting almost all partial scores unless you called past 11 o’clock at night, in which case everything was pretty much final—unless the Tigers, Pistons or Red Wings were playing on the Left Coast.

Sounds archaic, doesn’t it?

Well, of course it was! But that’s all we had in 1985.

The Tigers didn’t air 162 games a year back then, even with the birth of the pay-to-watch Pro-Am Sports System (PASS) on cable.

The Pistons had plenty of games not televised, as did the Red Wings.

So with no Internet to run to, what else was a shaggy young man to do if he wanted to know how is team was faring?

Dial 1-976-1313, that’s what.

Now, using public pay phones meant you needed one of two things: lots of loose change, or a calling card.

I can see the 30-year-olds’ heads spinning at the mention of a calling card.

It was actually very simple. Before AT&T there was something called Ameritech. And before Ameritech there was something called Michigan Bell. And Ameritech and Michigan Bell had calling cards.

The calling card was a sort of credit card for phone calls. The calls were billed to your home phone bill. You dialed the number you wanted from a pay phone and then, when prompted, you’d punch in your calling card number in lieu of depositing coins.

I knew my calling card number by heart. In fact I was probably the fastest calling card puncher in the midwest.

You had to be fast, if you wanted to get the score in rapid fashion, so you could rejoin your party without appearing to be too rude.

I called SportsPhone from all sorts of places and events: wedding receptions (including when I was the Best Man), social gatherings, business meetings and even dates.

One of the first things I would do whenever I entered an establishment was ascertain where the pay phone was. I’d mark the spot mentally, because you never knew when you might have to make a quick dash to call Dave LewAllen to see how the Red Wings were doing in Chicago.

This was when establishments had pay phones.

The voices on SportsPhone all sounded so rushed and urgent and I liked that. It added to the drama. Every time, LewAllen et al sounded as if they were giving their reports amid gunfire from a war zone. They couldn’t mince words or waste any time.

At the end of every call, they’d tell you when the next update was forthcoming. Mostly it was 10 or 15 minutes, although on some especially frantic nights, SportsPhone would update in seven or eight minute increments.

I think I got hooked on SportsPhone during the first Tommy Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, in September 1981.

I was a college freshman and if the fight was on closed circuit TV, I had no idea where it was being shown. And even if I did, I certainly didn’t have the cash for admission.

So I called SportsPhone that night. A lot.

Even from my dorm room, I could get a feel for the excitement and drama of that fight as it happened, because I was dialing SportsPhone every couple of rounds or so.

My heart sank when, on one call, I got the word that Hearns had been knocked through the ropes in the late rounds. Another phone call confirmed it: Sugar Ray had won by technical knockout.

Times had changed by 1989, when I did have the dough to pay to see Hearns-Leonard II on closed circuit TV. I wished I hadn’t; Hearns was jobbed in the decision, which was a draw.

I saw Hearns last December and I told him that he got rooked, which probably made me the millionth person to tell him that.

He laughed and told me that even Sugar Ray admits that Tommy won that fight.

But despite witnessing the second fight on television as it occurred, somehow it still doesn’t measure up to that September night in 1981, when as a freshman at EMU I “followed” the bout from my dorm room through several frantic phone calls.

For some who lived through the 1980s, the most famous phone number is 867-5309.

Pfft!

Gimme 1-976-1313. Now THAT’s a phone number!

Harbaugh Isn’t Coming, But New Guy Has to Win Right Away, Regardless

In college football on December 7, 2014 at 11:37 pm

The last two Michigan football coaches were defined by who they weren’t, not by who they were.

Rich Rodriguez wasn’t a Michigan Man, and he wasn’t Les Miles. He also wasn’t the school’s first choice. The fans and alumni felt that their university settled.

Brady Hoke wasn’t Jim Harbaugh, and he also wasn’t Michigan’s first choice.

The next coach runs the risk of also not being Harbaugh.

There was a time when Michigan didn’t have to search outside of campus to find a football coach.

Gary Moeller was promoted from within after Bo Schembechler retired after the 1989 season. When Moeller had a notorious, drunken flare up at a Southfield restaurant in 1995, Lloyd Carr got the job, and Carr was another assistant coach who was head coach-ready.

Carr retired in 2008 and Michigan has been wandering in the wilderness ever since, save an 11-2 season and a bowl win in Hoke’s first year (2011).

First, let’s get something straight. All major football programs have gone through this sort of thing.

You think Alabama has always been a big deal after Bear Bryant left? Oklahoma, after Barry Switzer? Nebraska, after Tom Osborne? Notre Dame, after Lou Holtz?

Show me a quote-unquote storied college football program and I will show you an era where that program fell out of relevance.

Michigan fans should know very well of Notre Dame’s dark days, having played them every September for about 35 years.

Remember when they made “Oust Faust” signs in South Bend?

The Fighting Irish elevated Gerry Faust from high school and made him the football coach at Notre Dame in 1981. It was dubbed The Great Experiment. And it failed, miserably.

Faust was indeed ousted after five seasons (actually, he resigned under pressure). Then Notre Dame hired Holtz.

Holtz presided over a rebirth of college football at Notre Dame, but after Lou left in 1996, the program went wandering again.

Program after program has lost its way.

Harbaugh, the darling of the fans in Ann Arbor, has as part of his appeal the rejuvenation of Stanford football on his resume.

Stanford, once so strong on the gridiron, had fallen into doormat status in the Pac-12 before Harbaugh arrived and, working with quarterback Andrew Luck, put the Big Red “S” back into prominence.

Alabama was wandering before Nick Saban put away his mercurial ways and became the Crimson Tide’s savior.

Michigan, in fact, has gone through this before, in the 1960s. The football program was an also-ran in the Big Ten before a guy from Ohio named Schembechler arrived on campus.

Every college football program has lost its way. The key is to keep the hemorrhaging to a minimum.

The danger of Michigan football and its supporters putting all their eggs in the Jim Harbaugh basket should be obvious.

What happens if you don’t get Jim Harbaugh?

It could be “Here we go again,” i.e. introducing a new football coach who isn’t someone else.

Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.

And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.

On the surface, when rumors of Hoke’s dismissal began as early as in October, it appeared as if the timing was right with Michigan getting Harbaugh, the embattled San Francisco 49ers coach and former Wolverines quarterback under Schembechler in the mid-1980s. It looked like, at first blush, that Michigan was poised to lure Harbaugh back home.

Harbaugh was perceived to be a short-timer in San Francisco, and the Michigan job was going to be open. It didn’t take a mathematician to figure it out.

But the timing wasn’t right, after all. Harbaugh, by all accounts, has gotten college football out of his system. He’s a pro football lifer now. Not even the lure of Ann Arbor can change that.

If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.

Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.

But lust is often blind.

Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.

Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?

The Super Bowl is football’s grandest prize, and the chase for it can be intoxicating. The money is crazy good if you’re considered an elite coach. And if you wear out your welcome with one franchise, there will always be another ready to hire you. Then when the coaching jobs dry up, you put on a suit and blab into a microphone. That pays pretty good, too.

In college, Harbaugh would have to sit in living rooms again, talking to kids and their parents, begging and pleading with them to attend a school that he knows in his heart shouldn’t need any selling. At Michigan, he’d be working with a president who knows nothing about big time college athletics and a rookie athletic director.

There was a window of time, a few weeks ago, when I thought that if any college program could lure Harbaugh out of the professional ranks, it would be Michigan’s.

I have amended that to say that if Michigan can’t lure Harbaugh from the pros, no program can. And no program will.

Coaching in the NFL is the ultimate job for someone as competitive and as fiery as Jim Harbaugh. No college experience can replicate it. Not even Michigan.

So now what?

So many folks who support Michigan football have set their sights on Harbaugh, that anyone else will be, at least initially, considered a secondary choice. Even Carr publicly stated his desire for Harbaugh.

The new coach has the unenviable task of not being Jim Harbaugh and having to win right away. The win-now mandate is there because Michigan is going on too many years of wandering to continue to do so for very much longer.

The new guy will be the third straight hire at Michigan who will be regarded as not being Miles or Harbaugh. That’s not a clean slate and that’s not a good start.

But winning will end all that. Hence needing to win right away.

I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.

But Michigan faithful, take heart.

No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.

Thanks to Hoke (Really!), the Rumored Death of Michigan Football is Greatly Exaggerated

In college football on September 28, 2014 at 6:59 pm

When Rich Rodriguez stood in front of the media in Ann Arbor on that November day in 2007, having just been introduced as the next football coach at the University of Michigan, one of the sage scribes asked him what it felt like to be worse than sloppy seconds.

OK, the question wasn’t posed with that degree of temerity, but Rodriguez, lured to Michigan from what appeared to be a cushy job at West Virginia, was thought to be U-M’s third choice, behind Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, who turned Michigan down, and in all likelihood Louisiana State’s Les Miles, who was courted clumsily by then-Athletic Director Bill Martin.

Rodriguez, looking a little stiff and slightly nervous, nonetheless cracked a joke about not being his wife’s first choice, either.

The comment broke the room up.

There wouldn’t be much laughter in the ensuing three seasons, after which Rodriguez was run out of town—a man whose biggest crime may have been that he was a perceived outsider.

Bo Schembechler started the “Michigan Man” nonsense.

My podcast co-host, Al Beaton, said on last week’s show that if Bo were alive today, the old coach would probably wish he’d never uttered the phrase.

It was Schembechler, then the AD at Michigan, who declared that assistant coach Steve Fisher would coach the Michigan basketball team throughout the 1989 NCAA tournament, in the wake of the news that head coach Bill Frieder had accepted the job at Arizona State—an announcement that occurred practically on the eve of the tourney.

Bo would have none of Frieder coaching the kids at Michigan during March Madness, as long as an agreement was in place for the basketball coach to flee as soon as the final buzzer of the final game sounded.

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Bo roared.

Fisher never attended Michigan. He was born and reared in Illinois. He played college basketball in Illinois.

But why let those facts get in the way of a good quote, right?

Fisher, the promoted assistant, guided the Wolverines to the 1989 National Championship. Bo looked like a genius.

So the “Michigan Man” term was born!

There was nothing “Michigan” about Rich Rodriguez, from the Latino surname to his football coaching resume. He was, however, another Illinois guy (born in Chicago).

Rodriguez coached just three seasons at Michigan, and when he was forced out after the 2010 season—three seasons that showed little progress, you could point to the Rodriguez years and say that they were among the most tumultuous in the school’s football history.

Oh, how good those years look now, eh?

It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.

Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.

One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.

The second thing may come as a shock to your system.

Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.

Yes, I’m as sober as a judge as I write this. My temperature is 98.6 and I know what day it is and I can recite the alphabet backward.

The feeling in 2007, when Rodriguez was the presumed third choice, was that coaching Michigan football had somehow lost a bit of its luster, despite some fine work done by Lloyd Carr from 1995-2007, including a co-National Championship in 1997.

That inferiority complex wasn’t helped when Schiano, coaching Rutgers (!) at the time, reportedly turned AD Martin down.

Who turns down Michigan to stay at Rutgers, when it comes to coaching football?

But it happened, if you believe multiple reports and chatter.

When current AD Dave Brandon hired Hoke, a former Michigan assistant under Carr, from San Diego State in January, 2011, again there were rumblings that Michigan got less than their first choice.

Brandon, it was reported, would have preferred LSU’s Miles (Brandon flew down to Louisiana to interview Miles, another former Michigan assistant, but under Schembechler). But Miles politely declined a job offer.

Brandon also might have pursued former U-M quarterback and then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, though that has never been confirmed. Harbaugh accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers just days before Brandon introduced Hoke.

With the hirings of Rodriguez and Hoke, that’s two straight coaching searches where Michigan—the school that still holds the college football record for most wins, ever—seemingly had to settle.

Yet Hoke’s stunning failure that is being played out in front of us like a car wreck is actually helping Michigan, I believe.

You heard me.

Michigan got its “Michigan Man” and it isn’t working out, which may be the understatement of the year.

But at least the school got the “Michigan Man” thing out of its system.

In 2008, Rodriguez followed Carr, when the Michigan job was still thought to be one where Carr’s successor could keep U-M as a Top 20 program for years to come.

Hoke is showing that just because you were an assistant at Michigan some 15 years ago, it doesn’t guarantee success as a head coach.

The job at Michigan, though, is better than ever.

Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.

There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.

Michigan football now is talked about a lot in the past tense.

It’s never good when words like “was” and “used to be” and “back in the day” are used to describe your program.

But it also means that Michigan football, in the hands of the right man, is ripe for the picking, so to speak.

Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.

Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.

Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.

Now the Wolverines are getting clocked at home by Minnesota, just their third loss to the Golden Gophers since 1967.

That’s not a good sign.

The wild card, however, is Brandon.

The athletic director has come under fire, not only for the Hoke hire but for his presumed micro-managing of the department, especially when it comes to football. He is too involved, many critics say.

John Arbeznik was a captain on the 1979 Wolverines team. He was speaking on 105.1 FM the other day about Brandon and his frequent presence around the Michigan football facilities.

“I never saw (former athletic director) Don Canham during the season. Never,” Arbeznik told Drew Lane. “Certainly never in the locker room.”

Arbeznik was guesting Lane’s show, discussing a letter that has been signed by 30-40 former players—basically a list of grievances. The letter, Arbeznik said, was given to the university’s Board of Regents and to new school president Mark Schlissel.

What, if anything, will come from Arbeznik and company’s list of grievances, no one really knows.

Brady Hoke cannot be brought back as Michigan coach next season. That much is certain.

But the job isn’t ruined for the next guy. The football program isn’t beyond saving.

In fact, it may be at its best place in years.

Michigan just has to find the right man. And the use of “Michigan” and “man” in that sentence was purely unintentional.

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