Leland Stein III

Posts Tagged ‘Michigan’

Ilitch leaves a noteworthy footprint in Detroit beyond sports

In sports column on February 13, 2017 at 12:57 am

Mike Ilitch hoist the American League pennant trophy as his Tigers head to the World Series. Dan Graschuck – photo

By Leland Stein III

Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Michael Ilitch recently passed at age 87. He may be gone physically from us, but his legacy and works will keep him in sports lore.

In 2011 ESPN the Magazine released its annual “Best in Sports” rankings and when it came to pro franchise owners, Ilitch was ranked #1. The rankings were reportedly based on honesty, commitment to the community and loyalty to core players.

As I think of great owners in sports, two men quickly come to mind. When I was snotty-noised journalist trying to come up in L.A., surprisingly to me Al Davis (Oakland & Los Angeles Raiders) and Dr. Jerry Buss (Los Angeles Lakers) became my personal advocates and helped me gain traction in the industry, by ensuring I got inclusion, as I was transitioning from engineering to a journalism career.

Any talk of great owners in sports should yield George Halas, Chicago Bears (1920-1983); Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves (1976-2007); George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010); Walter O’Malley, Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers (1944-1979); Robert Kraft, New England Patriots (1994-present); Pittsburgh Steelers owners Art Rooney and son (1933-present), Dan, who took over in 2003 and was the linchpin for the “Rooney Rule, and finally my guys Buss and Davis.

All these men were winners and understood continuity, their athletes and each sieged the moment in front them.

To Ilitch’s credit he tried to siege the moment in front of him during his ownership, not sparing anything, including money, to put both his Tigers and Red Wings in positions to win.

But what puts him up in the top rung of owners is his commitment to the community and the actions he took to make Detroit a better city.

A few years back I wrote a column beseeching, cajoling Detroit’s movers and shakers to seek to make the Motor City a national sports entertainment district.

In my 29-years as a journalist, one of the most amazing transformations I have seen is the cities of San Antonio and Indianapolis. Both were little towns with nothing going on in their downtown, each had minimal restaurants, hotels and entertainments venues.

However both San Antonio and Indianapolis built basketball and football venues and all the hotels and entertainment facilities soon followed.

I think Ilitch saw what I saw in those two smaller cities that were both seeking to define themselves. Each city recognized and acknowledged the walkable sports entertainment future direction and took massive steps to regenerate themselves in that genre.

Building basketball, football and baseball facilities in downtown have worked for both San Antonio and Indianapolis and each city have seen their downtown explode.

Unfortunately Ilitch did not live to see his Little Caesars Arena open. But he can take refuge in the fact that unlike San Antonio and Indianapolis, Motown has all four professional sports franchises, and, they are in walking distance from each other.

Ilitch in his plans for the Detroit District has committed to not only a new basketball and hockey arena, but the redevelopment plans include a posh hotel, medical center, retail shops and residential housing.

“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” said Ilitch in an early interview. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets were bustling and people were energized. It’s been a slow process at times, but we’re getting there now and a lot of great people are coming together to make it happen. It’s going to happen and I want to keep us moving toward that vision.”

Indeed Ilitch believed that a sports and walkable entertainment district would collectively help Detroit’s renovation and place the city in rotation for hosting the mega-sporting events like the Final Four, Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend and many other sports and entertainment events.

Maybe, just maybe the addition of Little Caesars Arena could be the linchpin that will even further thrust Detroit into the sports entertainment rotation of major sporting events.

The Motor City is the only cold weather city to host two Super Bowls, and, it has also recently been host to the Final Four and Major League Baseball All-Star Game. With the new arena the NBA and NHL All-Star Games are sure to make their way here.

Ilitch’s commitment to Detroit is noteworthy. Not only has it been sports, but he showed where his heart is attached when he and his wife, Marian, took a chance on the historic but neglected Fox Theatre when they purchased it in 1987. They restored the 5,000-seat theatre built in 1928 to its original splendor.

It did not stop there as the Ilitches commissioned an extraordinary renovation of the adjacent 10-story Fox office building in 1989, relocating its suburban offices staff, and established a world headquarters for their Pizza Company and Olympia Entertainment, Inc. in the transformed office building.

Since then, the theatre district has seen a rebirth marked by the opening of other restored theatres and new restaurants, and the building of two side-by-side stadiums for the Detroit Tigers and Lions.

In all the Ilitches own Little Caesar Pizza, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Champion Foods, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program and the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, as well as, the Motor City Casino.

Mike Ilitch may have transitioned to the afterlife, but his life’s works here in Detroit will live on and on and on and on.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

Michigan close but no cigar versus Ohio State

In sports column on December 2, 2013 at 12:12 am
Pic cutline: - Detroiter Devin Gardner and UM fell just short of an upset of Ohio State. - Dan Graschuck photo

Pic cutline: – Detroiter Devin Gardner and UM fell just short of an upset of Ohio State. – Dan Graschuck photo

By Leland Stein III

ANN ARBOR – As has been the case all season with the Michigan Wolverines, they put up a gallant fight but came up short.

Again, before 113,511 in the storied Michigan “Big House” Stadium, the Wolverines put up a fight until the last few seconds of the game, before succumbing to the No. 3 ranked and still undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes, 42-41.

“We talked about how all week we would have to play our best game to compete against this team,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in the post-game press conference. “We did some good things, but we did some things not so good. However, there is no doubting that our kids stepped up and played with passion. This is a special game and we practiced and studied film starting on Monday with focus. It is disappointing we could not close this game out for these young men.”

Talking to many of my friends in the press box just before the game commenced, most were speculating that Ohio State, a 16-point favorite, would blow Michigan out.

And who could protest, squabble or argue with that assumption, based on the way the Wolverines have played the past seven weeks.

Leland Stein IIIThe 2013 season started with so much hope with quarterback Devin Gardner starting his first full season at the helm of this Michigan team. Living up to those expectations, the Wolverines started out 5-0.

However, after a four overtime loss in a game they should have won, UM has descended downward. After the Penn State heart breaker, over the next seven games Michigan forgot how to block for the run, protect for their quarterback (Gardner), and, defend against the run defensively.

That Penn State loss has been followed with a beat-down by Michigan State, two close very winnable games against Nebraska and Iowa, and now this.

Coach Hoke, Gardner and the entire Michigan team all said that this was enough, and, collectively they went after a win on Saturday. After trailing 35-21 in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines showed some fighting spirit and grit. Coming back time after time, eventually tying the game at 35-35 with a little more than five minutes left in the contest, only to see OSU fly down the field to take a 42-35 lead with 2:20 left in the game.

For Gardner and his teammates this was an opportunity to arrest all the football demons that have been causing them grief. With purpose and determination the Wolverines sat sail on an 11-play, 84-yard drive that gave them an opportunity to tie the game.

So, with 30 seconds left in the game Michigan went for the 2-point conversion and win. I agree completely with going for the two points,

“We had not been able to stop their running game,” Hoke noted. “We were doing a poor job of slowing them down, so going for the win looked like the best thing for us to do.”

Indeed in was the best thing, the only problem was the play UM called in their most crucial possession of the season.

“We have worked on that play in practice and it was supposed to be a rub for (Drew) Dileo” a distraught Gardner whispered in his most solemn tone of voice. “I believe it was the right call to go for two. I do not question it at all, we just did not execute.”

So Michigan went for the 2-point conversion and Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) remains undefeated. With the win the Buckeyes achieved their 24th consecutive victory and keep their national championship hopes alive.

Gardner put in as good an effort as any UM quarterback versus OSU. He completed 32 of 45 passes for 451 yards and four TDs, connecting nine times for 175 yards and a score to Jeremy Gallon, and he ran for a 1-yard touchdown that gave Michigan the first lead in the shootout that went to halftime tied at 21.

The near Michigan upset almost gave the Wolverines (7-5, 3-5) their biggest upset in one of America’s greatest rivalries since legendary coach Bo Schembechler‘s first team at Michigan beat what Woody Hayes noted was his best Buckeyes squad ever.

The loss was yet another in Gardner’s first tenure at the helm of the Wolverines. He has showed that he is a skilled athlete and field leader, but the problems on the offensive line and in the running game knocked him off the pedestal as a premiere quarterback in the country.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

Proposed Ilitch Downtown Detroit arena could be linchpin for area.

In sports column on December 18, 2012 at 11:46 pm

Detroit a sports entertainment venue, get Ilitch development done

Ford Field hosted Super Bowl and Comerica hosted MLB All-Star Weekend.

Ford Field hosted Super Bowl and Comerica hosted MLB All-Star Weekend.

By Leland Stein III

Wake up Detroit movers and shakers! This is a crucial time that calls for bold moves and long-term vision, not only for Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, but the entire state.

Now that the Ilitch organization has finally put it out on the table their vision for building a new entertainment district downtown anchored by a multipurpose arena that would be home to the Ilitch-owned Red Wings, and hopefully the Pistons, I say make it happen with the quickness.

As Detroit continues to dig itself out of the economic disaster of 2007 that sent the city, state, country and the auto industry on a precarious and uncertain future, this proposed venue would give the Motor City an enormous shot in the arm.

All of Detroit leaders need to look at transformation Indianapolis and San Antonio undergone. Two smaller cities that were both seeking to define themselves. Each city recognized and acknowledged the future and regenerated themselves as sports entertainment venues.

Leland Stein III

Leland Stein III

Indeed sports and walkable entertainment collectively is the new model to ensure a city’s rotation in hosting the mega-sporting events like the Final Four, Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend and many other sports and entertainment events.

Sure there are those that will Detroit’s finances, the many vacant homes, and the continued Urban American homicides. Distracters will talk about the neighborhoods needing special attention and rightfully so. However, the dynamics of inner cities in America is a national problem of economics, employment, shifting population, and old infrastructure.

But one problem is no reason to hold up another potential uplift. If indeed the proposed multipurpose arena is commenced, it would not only host hockey and basketball, it would host a range of shows, concerts and other events, while the broader district would include residential housing, retail shopping, office space and more.

What more needs to be said? The City Council, Mayor’s Office, and state government needs to all get on board and help turn this vision into a reality.

I have been to both San Antonio and Indianapolis and seen how the new model of building all their sports venues in a walkable proximity. In conjunction with the arenas and stadiums hotels, eateries and housing have evolved.

Take the Los Angeles Staples Center for example. I was in LA when the developers started building the arena and many said who will perform there and that it was a waste of money and resources.

Well, the Lakers and Clippers and Kings after seeing the venue quickly abandon their arenas. The Staples Center has galvanized a three block district called LA Live that has clubs, restaurants, theaters and hotels.

The LA downtown area before the Staples Center and LA Live was built was a waste land of poverty.

A number of cities have shown us how a city came use the sports entertainment model to regalvanize a downtown and city.

An Ilitch family’s Olympia Development news release quoted George W. Jackson Jr., the city’s top development official and president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., as saying the plan “makes good” business sense.

“It’s not a plan for an isolated, single-use structure,” Jackson said in the statement. “Instead, it builds on the clear successes we’ve already had downtown integrating districts that feature entertainment, and support commercial, retail and residential development around them.”

The Ilitch organization pegged the probable price tag at $650 million. Legislation introduced in Lansing would create a new “catalyst development project” that could benefit from support from the Michigan Strategic Fund and also from the use of Downtown Development Authority tax revenues that support projects in the central business district.

“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” said Mike Ilitch, chairman of Ilitch Holdings, in the statement. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets were bustling and people were energized. It’s been a slow process at times, but we’re getting there now and a lot of great people are coming together to make it happen. It’s going to happen and I want to keep us moving toward that vision.”

I too had this vision. So let’s keep it moving Detroit.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter at LelandSteinIII

Déjà vu for Detroit Cass Tech

In sports column on November 26, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Detroit Public School League team best Detroit Catholic Central again for yet another State title.

By Leland Stein III

Detroit Cass Technical High Schoool celebrates second consecutive Div. 1 State title. – Andre Smith photo

Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher came into the post Division 1 State title press conference at Ford Field with a giant smile on his face. Good for him! He, his coaches and his players earned it.

In fact, the excellent turnout in Downtown Detroit showed up in respect for the Detroit Public School League (PSL). It mattered not where one graduated from, the Cass Tech 36-21victory over perennial power Detroit Catholic Central, was a victory for all that has prepped in the Michigan’s largest public school district.

In the post game press conference Wilcher exclaimed, while smiling like a Chester the cat, “Hey, you only live once. We may not make it back again.”

Leland Stein III


While his retort is very, very true, as evident by the fact only two PSL schools – Cass Tech (12-2) and Martin Luther King (2007 Div. 2) – have won Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) titles in football, he surely had his fingers crossed for the future.

Sure Wilcher will lose some of the top talent in the state, but with the closing of former PSL powers like Mackenzie, Redford and Murray Wright, just to name a few, the talent in the City has been condensed, and, with Cass Tech at the same time developing a solid overall program, they have been able to create an environment where good student athletes want to come. Couple the closing of historic PSL schools and the environment Wilcher has fostered at Cass Tech is why it has become an elite program in the state.

“This is happening because of the approach of our coaches’ teaching,” Wilcher told me. “They work our kids hard in practice, and, hold themselves accountable for our outcomes.”

Cass Tech’s Damon Webb runs by a DCC defender at Ford Field. – Andre Smith photo

Sounds like a very good formula for success to me.

That formula was tested in last year’s MHSAA Div. 1 Final, where Cass Tech socked the Michigan high school football world with a resounding 49-13 spanking of the Lordly Detroit Catholic Central. Sure that victory was great, but last year was last year.

No matter, Cass Tech came out strong, scoring on four big plays, forcing five turnovers. It all started when Jourdan Lewis scored on the first play from scrimmage. He beat double coverage and turned a 40-yard gain into an 89-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Jayru Campbell.

“I just don’t think, I react,” Lewis said. “The safety was playing over the top. Jayru put it in the right spot.”

To show Campbell’s growth as a quarterback, he noted that the play was intended as a short pass, but the corner came up. “We both looked at each other and went with the go (pattern),” he said.

Five plays later 6-foot-2, 260 pound defensive lineman Kenton Gibbs scooped up a fumble and nimbly ran 58 yards for a touchdown and a 12-0 Cass Tech lead before I had finish eating my between game sandwich.

Another game-changing play happened in the fourth quarter as Cass Tech faced a fourth-and-9 and Campbell checked out of one play and into a draw that turned into a 26-yard gain.

“I think the strength of the quarterback,” Wilcher gladly noted, “like I told him on the telephone one night, ‘I don’t care about your arm right now, I just love the way you think on the football field.’ That’s what makes him so important to me right now.”

What had hurt the PSL in other years was the line play, but Cass Tech’s offensive and defensive lines controlled the game. Lead by seniors Gibbs, David Dawson and Dennis Finley the Technicians played the game in the trenches.

“”It feels great that all the hard work in practice and the off season has paid off,” Finley said. “This is what you play for, and, we did this as a team.”

Added Dawson: “I knew we had a chance to make history. We lost some tough games, but we did not lose confidence. We rebounded from that King loss in the City Playoffs and refocused as a team as we did last year.”

Campbell threw for 154 yards and Mike Weber, another sophomore, rushed for 186 yards on 20 carries. Weber did play in last season’s title game because of a knee injury. “I had to wait my turn,” he said. “I just ran with my blocks and had fun.”

The entire PSL and it alumni had fun, too.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or at Twitter @lelandsteinIII

Detroit Southeastern’s Hankins anchoring Ohio State defense

In sports column on November 18, 2012 at 3:03 am

Southeastern’s Hankins anchoring Ohio State defense

Detroiter’s stock rising in NFL circles.

By Leland Stein III


Detroit Southeastern’s Hankins stops MSU”s All-Big-Ten back La”Veon Bell. – Dan Graschuck photo

EAST LANSING – With ESPN College GameDay crew creating the hype on Michigan State University’s campus and an ESPN national television audience looking on, former Detroit Public School League (PSL) star Johnathan Hankins and his Ohio State Buckeyes outlasted MSU at Spartan Stadium, 17-16 in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

As I headed to the post-game interview area, I ran across former Detroit Southeastern High coach Donshell English. He had arguably two of the best defensive linemen in PSL history on a team that finished 11-1. Both Hankins and MSU’s William Gholston made All-State and were on the Michigan Chronicle ALL-PSL team. The 6-foot-7, 278 pound Gholston left the PSL the No. 1 ranked player in the state and the 6-foot3, 322 pound Hankins was the 20th.

Now Hankins and Gholston, both juniors, are ranked as the best two defensive players in the Big Ten and both are pre-season All-America picks. Recently Big Ten Network NFL draft expert Russ Lande’s weekly Big Board, flip-flopped Gholston and Hankins, making the Ohio State defensive tackle Hankins the No. 1 player in the conference, with Gholston No. 2.

English said he is not surprised that both his star players at Southeastern have continued to grow as students and athletes.

Leland Stein III

About Hankins English recalled: “Against MSU he was a force from the very first play of the game controlling the middle. You can tell the way his coach (Urban Meyer) and his teammates respond to him, he is a team leader.

“He was the quiet storm in high school, but he always gave us extra effort. He never took plays off, so I knew he would excel wherever he decided to go to college.”

Meyer told me Hankins is a great young man and excellent teammate. “He is really coming into his own, but he can get even better. He is a hard worker and he gives his heart to Ohio State football. He is surly one of our team leaders.”

With Gholston being an early commit with the Spartans, and Archie Collins, Southeastern’s defensive coordinator during those seasons, a graduate assistant with Michigan State, it would seem Hankins and Gholston would have ended up together in East Lansing.

Hankins father told reporters shaking his head: “How he got away from Michigan and Michigan State, I can’t tell you why. I can’t see how they allowed him to leave the state of Michigan.”

Recalled Hankins: “Michigan State was one of my first choices and we always talked about playing together. But when I took my trip to Ohio State, the family atmosphere and the way Coach (Jim) Tressel treated me made me feel like this was the right place for me to grow as athlete and man.”

He said Meyer has a different style from Tressel, but he has bonded with him and the team is moving forward. “He (Meyer) is an intense coach, but he wants the best for us as people. On the field he expects us to play with energy and discipline.”

Hankins said that although the Buckeyes are on probation and will not be able to play for a Big Ten or national title, Meyer still has his team motivated and striving to be the best they can be.

“We are working to win every game,” Hankins said, “and we just want to have a positive season and send the seniors out with good memories.”

When Meyer arrived this season, Hankins quickly showed him he was the type of athletic defensive tackle that could be the anchor of his defense. He is fast becoming noted around the country for his running back feet, a big smile and a nose for the ball that proves he is more than just a big body.

“I think everyone knew from the start he’d be something special,” senior defensive lineman John Simon told reporters. “Hank can beat people with his speed and his power, and with his knowledge of the game, he knows what’s going on before the ball is even snapped.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or at Twitter @lelandsteinIII

UM’s Gardner makes smooth transition to receiver

In sports column on September 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Detroiter Devin Gardner catches touchdown pass. – Dan Graschuck photo

By Leland Stein III

ANN ARBOR – Obviously this was litmus test for the University Michigan Wolverines, as they undertook their first home game of the 2102 season versus the running instead of flying Air Force Falcons.

Before 112,522 in the Big House the only thing that took flight for the Falcons was the jet flyover that took place after the nation anthem was concluded.

These groups of flyboys really are as run happy a team as there is in college football. Air Force grounded out 400 yards in its first game and pushed the Wolverines around enough to the tune of 290 rushing yards.

Still the hungry Wolverines hung on and chewed up the Falcons through the air and on the ground for a hard fought 31-25 victory. Leading the way was Wolverine quarterback Denard Robinson, who combined for 426 yards (218 rush, 208 pass), accounting for all but seven of Michigan’s entire offensive output.

Helping Robinson out were junior quarterback-turned-receiver Devin Gardner and freshman tight end Devin Funchess.

Funchess had four catches for 106 yards and a noteworthy 30-yard touchdown where he out-jumped a defender. He was the first Michigan tight end to top 100 yards since Jerame Tuman had 126 against Colorado in 1997.

However, Gardner was the most comfortable target for the second straight week, catching five passes for 63 yards, including a precision route for his score. Against Alabama Gardner latched onto a 44-yard touchdown pass, showing all his potential.

Leland Stein III

Last week the Wolverines took on defending national champion and then second-ranked Alabama. The Crimson Tide put such a beating on the Wolverines that they were elevated to the top-ranked team in the country while the Wolverines sunk from No. 8 to 19.

“We were hungry for victory,” former Inkster High star Devin Gardner said. “So we did enough to make sure we got this win and got our season back on track.”

During the fall of 2009, Gardner was rated as the No. 1 dual-threat high school quarterback in the United States by Rivals.com and the No. 5 quarterback by ESPNU. He verbally committed to the University of Michigan’s 2010 recruiting class in the spring of 2009 and enrolled at the University of Michigan in January 2010.

Much to his chagrin Robinson was entrenched as the Michigan quarterback and during spring practice Gardner made the switch to receiver.

“In spring practice I saw we were a little short at the receiver position so I took some reps there and did kind of good,” Gardner said, “so they took notice and told me I might be able to help at that position right now. I began to practice hard and work on my mechanics.”

The question I asked Gardner is he now a receiver or a quarterback?

He said emphatically: “I am a quarterback! I saw a way to help this team win games this season so I moved to receiver. But, I still have every young person’s dream. I want to play quarterback for the University of Michigan. I still feel I have the ability and the heart to play the position. In fact I look forward to throwing the ball to Funchess next season. I can’t wait to get the chance to throw the ball to him.”

As for now Gardner is turning into the most stable receiver on the UM team. They play Massachusetts this Saturday at the Big House and it is an important test for keeping this team on track.

Gardner, 6-foot-4, is proving to be a key clog in the Wolverines passing game. 

He noted that the major change from quarterback is blocking. “It is hard trying to block those little defensive backs,” he said. “They try to juke me and move all over the place. But as far as the pass routes, as I quarterback I understand and know all of that.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII