Mick McCabe’s memorable moments from 46-year Free Press career

Mick McCabe’s memorable moments from 46-year Free Press career


Mick McCabe’s memorable moments from 46-year Free Press career


Mick McCabe became became the Son of Swami in 1987, picking high school football and boys and girls basketball games.

Mick McCabe became became the Son of Swami in 1987, picking high school football and boys and girls basketball games.

Here are a few memorable stories I’ve had since June 3, 1970:

The 1987 California Bowl

Eastern Michigan was a 171/2-point underdog to a San Jose State team filled with NFL prospects. Making its bowl appearance more impressive is that in 1984 the Mid-American Conference tried expelling EMU from the conference so the league could remain in Division I-A. The MAC would not even allow anyone from Eastern to attend media day, and the only MAC coach who said this was terribly wrong was Jack Harbaugh, then Western Michigan’s coach.

When Eastern’s attorneys found a way to keep the school in the league, I went to campus the first day freshman football players reported.

That is when I met Ron Adams, who had been a good quarterback at Taylor Center. When I asked him about his goals, he said he wanted to win a championship at Eastern. I thought he was incredibly delusional. But in his senior year he led Eastern to the amazing upset in the Cal Bowl.

That is why I was at Taylor Truman in 2004 to cover the game when Adams’ team qualified for the state playoffs for the first time. And that is why I was at Detroit Southeastern a few years later to see Donshell English, who was a star on that EMU defense, coach his team into the playoffs for the first time. And that is why I enjoyed going to Birmingham Groves’ games to see coach Brendan Flaherty, another EMU defensive standout in ’87.

Carl’s Chop House

The site of many of the Free Press’ all-area dinners where football coaches would nominate players for all-area and all-state, with coaches like Jim MacDougal and Dave Mifsud, who were so valuable with their accurate player evaluations. Carl’s is where we learned that when the inimitable Bob Dozier, who coached at Detroit Mackenzie, labeled a player “bona fide,” we knew he was legit and no further discussion was needed.

That is where I also learned one of the many reasons that Farmington Hills Harrison coach John Herrington was the most “bona fide” of all coaches. One year, former Novi coach John Osborne nominated Cory Sargent of South Lyon as an all-state punter. He said he didn’t know how many times he had punted, but knew he averaged 42.5 yards per punt. Herrington spoke up and told us the exact number of times Sargent had punted.

You see, South Lyon was quite good, and Herington knew that at some point Harrison would meet South Lyon in the playoffs, so he sent scouts to every South Lyon game. No coach was better prepared than Herrington, who also has a good perspective on high school athletics.

Liz Sietsema and Claire Kalina

Over the years I’ve tried to write more than just typical high school feature stories. I remember sitting in the Jenison Field House stands with Grand Rapids Christian coach Al VanDenBosch at the Michigan State girls basketball team camp in the summer of 1998. I pointed out a girl on a team and mentioned to Al that I was worried she was anorexic. Al said he had a girl on his team who was recovering from anorexia. I said if she ever wanted to tell her story, I would like to help her tell it in the pages of the Free Press.

Midway through that season, I called Al, and he said she was willing to meet with me. That was my introduction to Liz Sietsema. We spoke after a practice, and Al asked if it was all right if he sat in on the interview. Quite often that doesn’t make for a good interview, but something told me to say it was OK. Al wound up asking some very good questions and definitely helped make it a better story.

Two years ago, I learned of Claire Kalina, a senior on the Novi golf team. She, too, was battling anorexia, and she, too, was brave enough to share her story with our readers. Both girls were amazing, and I believe their words helped other high school girls with the same issues.

They are two young ladies I will never forget.

Ed Martin

This was probably the biggest story I was a part of, in which we learned that Ed Martin, the former Detroit Southwestern booster, was giving money to U-M players, beginning with Chris Webber. And those payments to Webber, we learned and the NCAA confirmed, began when he was still in high school.

Initially, I was not part of the story, but Jeff Taylor needed a source as an additional confirmation for the first story. I was called and asked if I could lend a hand. I came up with another source, and from then on Jeff and I were the ones trusted with uncovering the truth about Martin, Webber, former coach U-M Steve Fisher and other U-M players who received money from Martin.

It turned out that Martin was anything but a good-hearted basketball fan trying to help underprivileged kids. He expected to be paid back once the players hit the big time. Our investigation uncovered one of the biggest scandals in the history of college athletics.

Mother’s Day

In one of Jud Heathcote’s final seasons at MSU in the mid-1990s, we were speaking the Friday before Mother’s Day. Before hanging up, I said: “If I don’t speak to you Sunday, have a nice Mother’s Day.” Jud laughed like crazy and said something inappropriate for a family newspaper.

But each and every Mother’s Day since, I have made a call to Jud. I got to know him well during Earvin Johnson’s freshman year when the world was beginning to learn about the Magic Man and the coach who had to talk him into playing guard. The final story I wrote in 1978 was an MSU game story, and it was the first time Earvin had played guard. When I asked him how it felt playing guard, he said it was all right and might come in handy down the road.

Jud was the perfect coach for Earvin, and he was brutally honest with me about everything. Every year I hope Jud will pick up the phone on Mother’s Day.

Tom Izzo

The first person to tell me about Tom was Glen Brown, who had been his coach at Northern Michigan. Glen said Izzo was headed places, but I never imagined one of those places would be the Basketball Hall of Fame.

As an assistant coach, Tom proved to be a tireless worker, and I knew that would continue when he became a head coach. Even when he struggled mightily in his first couple of seasons, I knew he would wind up a wildly successful head coach. That is why one of the best moments I ever had was covering the 2000 national championship game when MSU beat Florida for the title. But I have to admit I never saw Tom having this level of success for such an extended time.

Lloyd Carr

Long before he became even an assistant coach at Michigan, Lloyd was head coach at Westland Glenn. Late in his rookie season, Glenn had a Saturday afternoon game at North Farmington. Lloyd greeted all of his players at the locker room door and asked each one what time they had arrived home the night before. Twelve players admitted they had broken curfew — and 12 players were suspended for the remainder of the season, which ended with a 48-0 loss to North Farmington that day and a 36-0 loss to Bloomfield Hills Lahser the next week.

When we’ve been together at banquets, Lloyd likes to tell the audience that he taught me everything I know. Well, he taught me most of what I know about football.

Each year as I compiled my Fab 50 list of state recruits, Lloyd would have an off-the-record conversation with me about players he liked and didn’t like and shared with me what he looked for in players.

Bo Schembechler detested all of the hoopla surrounding recruiting and thought many of the self-proclaimed recruiting experts were idiots. Late in his career, Bo told a writer at another paper: “The only guy who knows anything about recruiting is McCabe.” Of course I did, because Lloyd really did teach me everything I knew.


Over the years, I have criticized football and basketball game officials. The reason for that is because of Mike (No Show) Dempsey, who has a history of not always being where he said he was going to be. He introduced me to his mentor, Jim (Jinx) Marino, one of the great officials in state history. Through No Show and Jinx, I got to know George Solomon, Gentleman Jim Kennedy and Sam Taub, who were all giants in the world of officiating.

I got to see how they acted and officiated, so I expected every official to be as prepared and professional as they were. That is what made No Show and the late Joe Kavulich the best of their generation of officials. Sometimes I wonder how many of today’s officials actually study the rule book the way Marino did.

Ken Madeja

I knew Ken Madeja long before he began scouting for the Tigers. In 1984, I called to jab him for the Red Sox taking someone from the Detroit area on the first round. Kenny told me: “Forget about him. We got somebody on the 22nd round way better than him.” A couple of months later, I received a call from Kenny, who said: “We got our (Bret) Saberhagen.” That was the day the Tigers signed John Smoltz, who was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame a couple of years ago and is now on his way to becoming a Hall of Fame broadcaster as well.

Over the years, I’ve seen Kenny at different places, like a basketball game at Wayne Memorial where he wanted to see how Taylor Kennedy’s Steve Avery competed against a team of athletic players — Avery was the best athlete on the court. And only Kenny, who left the Tigers for Seattle, would insist the Mariners draft a player following a high school season in which he had a 1-3 record with a 4.00 ERA. That turned out to be Dearborn Edsel Ford’s Derek Lowe, who will never have to pay for a meal in Boston for the rest of his life. Like me, Kenny is retiring this month, and I think I owe him lunch.

Jim Abbott

While it is said there are no stupid questions, I did feel silly calling former Flint Central athletic director Tim Bograkas and asking him how many hands his quarterback had. “Oh, you’re talking about Jimmy,” he said. That was Jim Abbott, born without a right hand, who was Flint Central’s backup quarterback and was pressed into service when the starter became ineligible. Jim guided Central into the state playoffs, throwing three touchdown passes in one game.

At the end of our interview, I asked Abbott if played any other sports, and he mentioned he played baseball. He said he had visited U-M the previous weekend. At the time, U-M had the best baseball program in the Midwest. Pitching in the Pan-American Games, Jim went on to be the first pitcher to beat Cuba in Cuba in what seemed like forever and also starred for the Olympic team before moving on to a fine major league career.

No one I’ve known embraced their destiny as a role model like Jim. He inspired countless kids who looked like him. While he did not have a Hall of Fame career, Jim lives a hall of fame life.

Suzy Merchant

I first met Suzy Merchant when she was a 15-year-old freckle-faced redhead and we were playing pickup basketball in Traverse City’s gym, the night before the opening of a basketball camp. I just knew she was going to be a terrific coach, all she needed was an interview at a big school because she was going to win every interview.

In 2008-09, her second season at MSU, No. 9 seed MSU found itself hosting a second-round NCAA tournament game against No. 1 seed Duke, which was coached by former MSU coach Joanne P. McCallie, who had done a tremendous job building the program into a Big Ten power. I believe that McCallie, who did not leave MSU on good terms, engineered the matchup in East Lansing — Duke’s associate AD was chairperson of the selection committee. But MSU became only the second No. 9 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed and Merchant’s legacy at MSU was set in stone.

Parting shots

The AAU effect: Over the past several years, I have noticed a change with high school players, a sense of entitlement that didn’t exist before. That comes directly from parents, who are unbelievably delusional when it comes to their children’s talent. Some parents believe if their kid winds up all-state with a college scholarship, it is a direct reflection on their parenting skills, which is absurd. And while there are many outstanding AAU programs that operate with the best interest of the kids at heart, there are some run by total imbeciles. Making matters worse is the philosophy that if you don’t like your role on one AAU team, just go play for another AAU team. That attitude has seeped into the way some people approach high school athletics. If you don’t like your role at one school, transfer somewhere else.

Girls sports switch: The biggest disappointment in my tenure was the Communities for Equity’s assertion that girls in Michigan were being discriminated against because volleyball was played in the winter in Michigan while 48 other states played the sport in the fall. (Michigan played girls basketball in the fall.) The unintended consequences in the court’s switch of the state’s volleyball and girls basketball seasons has been disastrous for basketball. More and more high school volleyball coaches are beginning their own volleyball clubs, a practice that has ended many girls’ basketball careers and caused irreparable harm to the game. Now, so many girls basketball games are unwatchable. Girls often no longer have the basic skills they once had, and even making a simple lay-up is a 50/50 proposition.

College scholarships: The latest fraud in high school sports is football combines, training sessions and seven-on-seven leagues that imply to parents and kids that if you’re not devoting yourself to football, you will never get a college scholarship. However, we are still getting between 55 and 65 Division I football scholarships for Michigan kids, just like we were getting 20 years ago. The vast majority of players selected in the NFL draft were at least two-sport athletes in high school. If you are specializing in football or basketball, you are effectively hampering your chances of getting a Division I scholarship. And that is true for boys and girls in every sport imaginable.

The MHSAA: Over the years, I often have called out the Michigan High School Athletic Association when I feel it has made mistakes. While we agree on far more issues than we disagree on, my hope is the MHSAA will become more aggressive in enforcing the rules it now has on the books. The two biggest issues the MHSAA needs to address are transfers and undue influence, which have reached epidemic proportions. The MHSAA should be more transparent and harsh in dealing with rule violators because school administrators believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is a waste of time to turn in violators since the MHSAA won’t take appropriate action.


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