Cranbrook is an educational community that, among other things, houses a fine Institute of Science, an Academy of Art and whose stately buildings are tucked away within the rolling greens of its campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
It’s like the state’s own Ivy League school.
Until 1975, those rolling greens were invaded each July and August by the Detroit Lions, which held training camp at Cranbrook for over 25 years.
Lions players and coaches would hole themselves up in Cranbrook’s tiny dorm rooms, hold their two-a-day practices and prep for the upcoming NFL season.
The memories of Cranbrook when it comes to the Lions can bring an outpouring of reminiscence from the old-timers—both the players and coaches who experienced it, and the media that covered it. From Bobby Layne’s legendary carousing to the untimely death of coach Don McCafferty, there were rarely dull moments at Cranbrook.
Sadly, the numbers in each of the aforementioned groups who experienced Cranbrook keep dwindling.
We lost one of them on Monday, when acerbic sportscaster Al Ackerman passed away in Florida at age 90.
But one of them is still with us, and it was he who engaged with Ackerman in a tart conversation in front of channel 7’s cameras in the early-1970s.
The Lions coach was Joe Schmidt, former playing hero and no stranger to Cranbrook’s history and football legacy, Honolulu Blue and Silver style.
Ackerman was on campus one training camp, and he wanted to know about the Lions’ linebacker situation.
He engaged with Schmidt on camera.
Paraphrasing using the memory of this 52 year-old writer, who witnessed the exchange as a child, it went something like this.
Ackerman: What are you going to do about the linebackers, Joe? Wayne Walker and Mike Lucci (author’s note: two veterans on their last legs) can’t play forever.
Schmidt: I don’t know, Al, what would you have me do?
Ackerman: Are you going to start drafting linebackers soon?
Schmidt: You have someone in mind?
Ackerman: I just want to know about the linebackers and the depth.
Schmidt: You find me some linebackers, Al. Why don’t you go and find me some linebackers?
Clearly, nothing remotely like this exchange would happen these days. Because there’s no sportscaster in town remotely like Al Ackerman was in his heyday.
Don’t come at me with voices like Mike Valenti of 97.1 the Ticket, because while Valenti can be loud, obnoxious and very opinionated, he doesn’t talk to those he eviscerates on the air.
Al Ackerman not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.
Al would give you the scores at 11:20 every night—first on channel 4 then on channel 7, then on channel 4 again—but he’d also give you a piece of his mind. And that wasn’t enough; he’d give those he was covering a piece of his mind, too.
Fellow sportscaster Bob Page, who started working with Ackerman at channel 7 in 1977, said yesterday in an email to me that Ackerman’s on-air persona wasn’t an act.
“He was crazy. Insecure as the day was long,” Page, who would eventually leave Detroit for New York, wrote. “He was a yeller and immediately disliked me because of my background. He’d actually scream at me, ‘You Grosse Pointe mother——!’ But I guess I won him over eventually because I was his reporter and I hustled and dug up stories constantly for him. We wound up getting along very well.”
Ackerman was the Bill Bonds of sports reporting. Viewers tuned in to see what Ackerman would say and who he would take to task. His on-air relationship with Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, for example, was good television.
Ackerman never challenged anyone to a fistfight, however, as Bonds once famously did to Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
Page also said that Ackerman’s tenacity and fearlessness instilled something within him as a teenager.
“I thought it was soooo cool that a guy could just get on TV and say whatever he wanted to, criticize and even rip people and teams to shreds WHEN it was warranted. Moreover, he told the truth about what was going on when not a single other sportscaster of his era would. I think it was at that point that I knew I wanted to be a sports commentator too. I was never one of these guys who went out and practiced announcing games, hoping to someday be a play-by-play man. I wanted to be Al Ackerman.”
Page wasn’t Al Ackerman—how could he be?—but he did get to be Al’s reporter and anchor the sports on weekends at channel 7.
Then there was Ackerman’s chiding of Pistons coach Dick Vitale.
Vitale resigned as University of Detroit’s basketball coach in 1977, citing stomach problems. He broke down at the press conference, sobbing uncontrollably. Vitale stayed at U-D, however, as Athletic Director for the 1977-78 season.
It was during that season as AD that Vitale kept his one good eye (he lost the other as a child) on the Pistons situation from afar.
The team was in turmoil, yet again. Coach Herb Brown was fired in December. General Manager Bob Kauffman took over on an interim basis, but he wasn’t interested in being the coach on a permanent basis.
Dick Vitale was, however.
Vitale lobbied for the Pistons job shamelessly. He encouraged the columnists in town to write “Pistons should hire Vitale” pieces (and they did). He used his friendship and business partnership with Pistons center Bob Lanier (the two of them ran a basketball camp for many years) as leverage with ownership as well.
It worked. The Pistons hired Vitale in May, 1978. The opening presser was a circus, with Dickie V as the ringmaster. Dick spoke for 30 minutes straight before taking any questions.
The fact that Vitale grabbed the Pistons job—which came with an annual salary of $100,000—when he had resigned from coaching less than two years prior, citing health issues, rankled Al Ackerman.
On many a night after the Pistons hired Vitale, Ackerman would lay into the new NBA coach, mocking Vitale’s supposed stomach issues and opining that the $100,000 salary was “as good as plop-plop, fizz-fizz,” which was a popular antacid ad campaign at the time.
But true to his persona, Ackerman didn’t back down on his views when in the company of those he was blasting on the air. This clip (NSFW) demonstrates that.
Ackerman wouldn’t say anything on the air about you that he wouldn’t say to your face. That was a cold, hard fact.
Even the 1984 Tigers’ signature battle cry, “Bless You Boys!”, was born from Ackerman’s sarcasm.
Ackerman is rightly credited with coining the phrase, but it was hardly created as a means of encouragement.
It was first used by Ackerman as a sort of Bronx cheer, after the Tigers broke a losing streak in 1983.
The Tigers finally won a game and Al looked into the camera and said with his trademark sneer/smirk combination, “Bless you boys!”
The phrase stuck and it was used in 1984 as a distinctly more positive credo as the Tigers made a mockery of the AL East race.
They don’t make sportscasters like Al Ackerman anymore—certainly not at the local level. And even nationally, the air seems to be filled with blowhards whose bark is worse than their bite.
When was the last time you saw Stephen A. Smith, for example, get into the face of someone that he railed against in the studio?
It’s one thing to put on a headset or grab a microphone and yell into the camera. It’s quite another to do so in front of the people with which you have a beef.
Al Ackerman did the latter, and he was really the only one in Detroit who did. And no one has done it since Al’s retirement in the late-1980s.
And nobody, sadly, probably ever will.
Page recounted Al’s own words, said to him many years ago about life as a retired, acerbic sportscaster.
“What I wouldn’t give to be slipping and sliding through the snow on the Lodge in February, driving down to channel 4 to deliver one more commentary.”
That makes a lot of us.