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Houston: The Birth of the Modern Final Four

The Final Four is one of the most anticipated sporting moments of the year. Four of the best teams from the NCAA gather together to battle for supremacy in front of a national audience. While the stage is often in the confines of indoor football stadiums, it wasn't always this way. There was a time when the Final Four was played in much smaller venues of similar charm but less grandeur. No matter the situation or place in time, change is constant. Sometimes, change can come gradually while other times a single event does the trick. When Houston battled UCLA under the lights of Houston's Astrodome, the Final Four changed forever.

The Leadup

The University of Houston Cougars were on the rise. After years of lousy seasons, coach Alden Pasche had finally built a winner by 1956. After the Cougars lost to Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Pasche retired and handed the reigns to Guy Lewis.

It often takes a considerable amount of time to really get the wheels turning on a program, for everything to gel just right. Guy Lewis was stepping into some big shoes as Pasche had been the Cougars' first coach. Lewis needed to recruit his type of players and implement his system as those players developed and matured.

Growing pains were expected in Houston. As it was, Guy Lewis didn't earn his first winning season until his fourth year. That 13-12 record was the turn of the corner that the Cougar program needed. The following year, they made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years, but again lost in the second round.

All was quiet in the city of Houston, until the day that Elvin Hayes stepped on campus. The 6'9" forward that hailed from Rayville, Louisianna could do it all, shooting blocking and rebounding- but his greatest attribute was leadership. When Lewis saw him put up 45 points and 20 rebounds in the Louisiana state championship game, he knew that he had to have him on his team. On that day, he say the way he moved, the way that his play rallied his team to victory. In Hayes, Lewis saw the unquantifiable asset of big-game ability necessary to make a deep run in the postseason. Elvin Hayes was unquestionably the cornerstone of Guy Lewis' program. Hayes immediately began paying dividends and after three successful but not postseason-worthy seasons, the Cougars made it back to the Tournament in 1965 and three years thereafter.

While the Cougars continued to win, something else was happening in the city of Houston. In 1965, the Houston Astrodome opened for business with both MLB's Astros and the NFL's Oilers immediately taking residence. At the time, it was the world's largest indoor venue, capable of hosting football, baseball and a host of all kinds of other events. when Houston's athletic director Ted Nance first took a gander at the structure, the wheels started to turn.

As he gazed at the ceiling that stretched so high and the seats that stretched so wide, he knew that this venue could host all kinds of events other than football and baseball, including basketball. It just needed the right matchup. While he began to ponder, the UCLA Bruins began to discover their winning ways, winning national titles in 1964 and 1965. Shortly after UCLA won their second straight national championship, Lew Alcindor signed with the Bruins. Despite his quiet demeanor, the 7'2" center from Power Memorial High School in New York City was an intimidating presence on the hardwood.

While UCLA didn't win the national championship in Alcindor's freshman year, they did go undefeated in his sophomore year in 1967 and looked more than capable of defending their national title the following year. With Guy Lewis' hand-picked team brimming with talent and UCLA set to dominate the college world for the foreseeable future, Nance knew that both schools and the rest of the NCAA could benefit from the publicity.

After a call to UCLA sports information director J.D. Morgan and a talk with UCLA's iconic coach John Wooden, the game was set for January 20, 1968. As the months dragged on and the teams won game after game, the media picked up on the hype and gave it a name often used for college football: the Game of the Century.

The Game of the Century

The crowd of 52,693 gathered in the Astrodome for the year's ultimate regular-season showdown. It was a strange sight as the crowd was seated so very far away from the hardwood. They were so far away that their cries of admonition and euphoria couldn't be heard by the players as the play occurred, the distance giving the roar of the crowd an unusual delayed effect.

It was a game worthy of the hype that national television exposure often brings. At the time, both Houston and UCLA were undefeated and were the top-two ranked teams in the nation while UCLA was currently riding a 47-game winning streak. The Bruins looked unstoppable but there were rifts in the seams. Just a couple of days earlier, Lew Alcindor was poked in the eye and had a scratched cornea. Even though many of his points came within a short distance from the basket, he still needed to see where he was going. He wasn't quite himself for much of the game.

It was a tale of two halves. From the start, both teams couldn't miss and ended the first half with Houston taking a 46-43 lead. The second half was a defensive struggle, highlighted by Elvin Hayes' three blocked shots off of Alcindor. The crowd of more than 50,000 was amazed and astounded by the effort of both teams. In the end, Houston prevailed 71-69, ending the Bruins' 88-game winning streak.

The Aftermath

After the Game of the Century concluded, neither team lost again for the rest of the season. Again, their impending clash seemed preordained. They faced off in the highly anticipated rematch in the national semifinal but that game was much different as UCLA dominated Houston 101-69 and would go on to win the next six national championships, becoming the greatest dynasty in NCAA Mens Basketball history. Since that mid-January night in 1968, the Final Four has mostly been played in the vast confines of stadiums, not arenas. The national exposure and grandeur drew the leaders of the NCAA to a much more lucrative future. The Final Four has never been the same since.

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