By LARRY GAGE
Special to the PRESS
Former University of Houston head basketball coach, Guy V. Lewis, who won nearly 600 games and took his teams to five Final Fours, has been elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Lewis is the father of South Padre Island businessman and former Houston Cougar player Vern Lewis.
The younger Lewis played under his father at UH in the late 1960s and was a member of the first two Houston Cougar teams to play in the Final Four in 1967 and 1968.
The natural tendency, when it comes to hall of fame candidates for any sport, is to look at the numbers, and Guy Lewis certainly produced the numbers. In 30 years as the head man at Houston Lewis had 27 straight winning seasons, won 592 games, and made 14 NCAA Tournament appearances. Lewis’ Cougar teams produced 14 20-win seasons, three 30-win seasons, and twice played in the national title game.
While numbers alone, especially if a national championship is included, can get a coach into the Hall of Fame, Vern Lewis maintains that his father’s real contributions to the game go far beyond those that are defined by numbers. “He was the first coach in the South to integrate college athletics,” Lewis said. “Everybody was white when Houston was integrating back in 1964.” That year Guy Lewis signed Don Chaney and Elvin Hayes as the first two black players in the program’s history.
Then there came a certain basketball game that became known as the “Game of the Century.” The UCLA Bruins, coached by Hall of Famer John Wooden, had won three of the previous four NCAA national titles when, in January of 1968, a game between them and the University of Houston was arranged in, of all places, the Astrodome.
“It was totally his idea,” Vern said of his father. “In 1967 he convinced John Wooden and the UCLA athletic director that if we just put a court in the middle of the Astrodome people would come to watch. Wooden didn’t want to do it…didn’t believe in it. They (Coach Lewis and UH AD) had to go out to California and convince Wooden…that it would be tremendous exposure for both teams.”
Another person who had to be convinced was Judge Roy Hofheinz, the owner of the Astrodome at the time. He thought the players would be too far away to see. “My dad came back at him and said, ‘Judge, don’t baseball players play down there? They’re a lot smaller than my basketball players and people see them. And our basketball is five times bigger than your baseball. They’ll see the game.’ And Judge Hofheinz agreed.”
The Bruins came in as the No.1-ranked team in the country and were riding a 47-game winning streak. Houston was No. 2. “No one thought we had a chance to beat these guys,” Vern said.
Over 50,000 people were there that night to see Houston win the historic contest 71-69 with two last-minute free throws by Elvin Hayes. It was the first nationally broadcast college basketball game and it was the first basketball contest, college or pro, to be shown live in prime time. “That’s why they call it the “Game of the Century,” the younger Lewis said. “Modern college basketball came in that night.”
As to why it took so long for the senior Lewis to be accepted into the Hall of Fame, Vern Lewis said, “My honest opinion is…that we live in the South and most of the committee members live in the East. So there is what I would call eastern bias. It’s taken (27) years for him to get in and he was just as much a Hall of Famer (27) years ago as he is now.”
After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Lewis played basketball at Houston and graduated in 1947. He joined the U of H coaching staff as an assistant in 1953, became head coach in 1956, and led the program in that capacity for the next 30 seasons. Guy V. Lewis, 91, lives in Houston with his wife Dena, with whom he celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary this year.
“It’s the pinnacle of his career and Mom and Dad are absolutely elated,” Vern said. “I wish Dad had the ability to verbalize, but if you look in his eyes you can see it. He’s very excited to be amongst so many great coaches and players who have come before him.”
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was established in 1949 and is located in Springfield, MA. Guy V. Lewis will be formally inducted into the Hall in a ceremony next September 8.