Guy V. Lewis died yesterday. He was 93 years old. That’s probably bigger news in Houston than it is elsewhere. It’s probably bigger news to UH alums than others. It’s major news to fans of college basketball.
It’s easy to just jot down the numbers associated with Coach Lewis and make those sound profound. There’s the 592 career wins. The 14 NCAA Tournament visits. The five Final Fours. The two times to play for the NCAA title. He’s one of just two coaches (the other being the late Dean Smith) to have produced three of the NBA’s all-time greatest players.
He was one of the first coaches at a major Southern university to recruit African-American players in the 1960s. For many people, the fact that he was a leader in integrating college sports would be enough to make him an all-time great human being. For others, the numbers associated with his career would be more than enough to guarantee his greatness.
But none of those are Lewis’s greatest contribution to college athletics. He was truly a visionary. And if not for his vision, it’s hard to imagine NCAA basketball would be quite what it is now. For it was Guy V. Lewis who envisioned playing basketball in a domed football stadium before a national television audience. And it was Guy V. Lewis who convinced John Wooden to bring his great UCLA team to the Astrodome to play the Houston Cougars in what was deemed the Game of the Century.
So on January 20, 1968, two of the top programs in college basketball faced off before 52,693 fans inside the Astrodome while millions of more fans watched on television. The Cougars, led by future NBA great Elvin Hayes, defeated UCLA, led by future NBA great Lew Alcindor, 71-69. To many the game was a fluke, but by the late 1970s, it was commonplace for NCAA title games to be played in domed stadiums, and now, it’s commonplace for regular season games to be played in domed stadiums before national TV audiences.
Guy V. Lewis coached at Houston from 1956 through the 1986 season. He never coached after that. It was only the head coaching job that he ever held. He was a fantastic recruiter, and along with landing major talents, he had an eye for finding hidden talent and making those players great.
Three members of the Basketball Hall of Fame — Hayes, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon — were coached by Lewis. He was also the coach responsible for such NBA players as Don Chaney, Otis Birdsong, Dwight Davis, Dwight Jones and Rickie Winslow (the father of current NBA player Justise Winslow). And Lewis’s 1982-1984 squads, known as Phi Slama Jama, went to three straight Final Fours and lost twice for the NCAA title. The 1983 title game loss to NC State is still referred to as one of the greatest upsets in sports history, but the 1983 semi-final win over Louisville just days before that was one of the most exciting games in NCAA basketball history.
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'Coach Lewis truly was a giant in this industry,” current UH head coach Kelvin Sampson said yesterday. “He was not only a Hall of Fame coach but a Hall of Fame man. I have heard so many wonderful stories about Coach Lewis from his former players and the impact he had on all their lives. I am proud that we get to work at an institution like the University of Houston where Coach Lewis’s name will live for eternity. Coach Lewis had a rich life, on and off the court, and everyone in Houston basketball offers our condolences to all his family and friends.
Despite everything that Lewis accomplished, it’s still probably fair to say that he was one of the most underrated coaches in NCAA history. Maybe it’s because he never won a title. Maybe it’s because UH was never a high-profile school. Maybe it was nothing more than ignorance. But never let anyone claim that Guy V. Lewis is not one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time.
And perhaps if Lewis is to be remembered for anything, it should be for always being a Houston Cougar. The man bled Cougar red, and his devotion to the school cannot be questioned. Not only did he coach the Cougars, but he played for the Cougars, being the co-captain of the first two basketball teams in UH history, then he was an assistant coach for the Cougars before becoming the head coach.
The University of Houston will honor Guy V. Lewis with a moment of silence before today’s football game versus Navy, and he will be further honored with a moment of silence before Saturday evening’s basketball coach that will be played, as always, on the Guy V. Lewis Court at Hofheinz Pavilion.