by BARTEE HAILE
The Associated Press announced on Mar. 4, 1968 that Guy V. Lewis of the undefeated and number-one ranked Houston Cougars had been elected the college basketball “Coach of the Year” by the nation’s sportswriters.
Twenty-one years earlier, the World War II vet played in the University of Houston’s very first basketball game. The 6-foot-3 center and team captain scored 19 points that night in the victory over North Texas and averaged 21 points a game to lead the Cougars to a Lone Star Conference championship.
Following a 1947 repeat by Lewis (19 ppg) and his teammates (a second Lone Star title), the Arp native received his walking papers – a college diploma. But six years later, he returned to his alma mater to take the job of assistant basketball coach.
In his absence, UH had joined the Missouri Valley, a “power conference” that consistently produced Top 20 teams. In spite of the stiffer competition, Lewis’ old coach went out a winner after guiding the Cougars to their first NCAA tournament in 1956.
The athletic director handed the keys to the gym and the university’s basketball future to 34 year old Lewis. Holding tight to his trademark red polka-dot towel, he took his place on the bench where he would remain a familiar fixture for the next 30 years.
Inheriting a bare cupboard, Lewis lost more often than not in his first three seasons. But that would never happen again, as the country boy from East Texas showed himself to be a shrewd judge of athletic talent.
The 1959-60 season was Houston’s last as a Missouri Valley member. Lewis chose to steer an independent course while waiting patiently for the long-expected call from the Southwest Conference that did not come until the mid-1970’s.
In the meantime, Lewis built a big-time program with the likes of Gary “The Ghost” Phillips. The hot shooting and smothering defense of the first All-American in school history carried the Coogs to the second round of the 1961 NCAA tourney.
Three years later, Lewis did the unthinkable for a basketball coach at a southern school. Breaking with segregated tradition, he boldly offered full scholarships to two black prospects, Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney.
In their three varsity seasons, UH compiled a won-lost record of 81-12 and reached the Final Four, the pinnacle of the collegiate sport, in 1967 and 1968. Every mythical All-America five worthy of the name included Hayes in his sophomore, junior and senior years and Chaney too in his last season.
It was in early 1968 that Lewis talked John Wooden into bringing Lew Alcindor (the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the rest of his UCLA Bruins to the Astrodome. Both teams boasted perfect records, but the defending champions from the West Coast were riding a 47-game winning streak and considered a cinch to teach the upstart Texans an embarrassing lesson in front of a packed house of 52,693.
In the first coast-to-coast telecast of a regular-season college contest, Elvin Hayes stepped to the free-throw line with 28 seconds left in what is still known today as “The Game of Century.” He made both attempts for his 38th and 39th points and sealed the historic triumph for the hometown underdogs.
By the time Houston and UCLA met again in the semi-finals of the Final Four, Lewis had lost his starting point guard to an injury. Wooden concentrated on containing Hayes enabling the Bruins to regain a measure of self-respect with a lopsided win.
But there would be many more All-Americans and three additional trips to the Final Four for Guy Lewis and the Houston Cougars. The exciting “Phi Slama Jama” show of the 1980’s featuring future NBA legends Clyde Drexel and Hakeem Olajuwon thrilled millions in back-to-back bids for the national championship.
Lewis retired in 1986 with 592 wins against only 270 losses in his three-decade coaching career. This is but a partial list of his accomplishments: 27 consecutive winning seasons including 14 with 20 or more, two “National Coach of the Year” awards, 17 post-season appearances, 15 All-Americans, 11 players selected in the first-round of the NBA draft and three (Hayes, Drexel and Olajuwon) on the official 50 Greatest Players in NBA History list.
With those impressive credentials, Lewis should have been inducted years ago into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was not, and at age 90 is still on the outside looking in.
No one has taken the shameful slight harder than Lewis’ former players. Elvin Hayes has refused to have anything to do with the Naismith Hall since his own induction back in 1990.
The Springfield, Massachusetts institution has another, maybe the last, opportunity to do right by Guy Lewis. His name is on the ballot for the vote scheduled for March 2013. Lewis’ family, friends and countless admirers can only hope the door won’t be slammed in his face yet again.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.