When Houston’s Dome Ruled College Basketball…

When the Houston Astrodome, the first multi-purpose domed stadium, opened in 1965, it was on the cutting edge of architecture. Besides baseball and football, the Dome hosted an array of events, everything from Knievel jumping over cars to Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs playing tennis for their battle of the sexes match to Elvis. In 1968, the Dome hosted the most attended college basketball game, at least until 2003.

Kenneth Womack, the co-author of The Eighth Wonder of The World The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome, discusses “The Game of The Century” and a few other things, including what ever happened to Monmouth University’s Bench Mob.

POPGATES:

You’re an English professor and dean at Monmouth University in New Jersey. What’s your connection to the Houston Astrodome, and what inspired you to write a book about it?

KENNETH WOMACK:

The Astrodome has been a part of my family for as long as I can remember. My grandfather Kenneth Zimmerman was the engineer of record for the Astrodome project, and he created many of the engineering innovations that have kept the building standing tall for nearly 52 years. With that kind of association, I grew up in the place, attending hundreds upon hundreds of Astros and Oilers games. I even saw my first concert in the Dome. Sonny and Cher in 1974 as part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo!

POPGATES:

When college basketball powers Houston and UCLA squared off at the Dome in 1968, pre March Madness, it attracted a then record crowd of 52,963. How did this game come to be? Certainly, there must have been skeptics, and it must have been a challenge.

KENNETH WOMACK:

It was a major coup for the Houston Sports Association. Often dubbed as the “Game of the Century,” the event was the brainchild of Houston Cougars coach Guy Lewis, who came up with the idea of hosting UCLA in the Astrodome. Houston seemed like an odd choice for a showcase basketball game. It wasn’t a big basketball town at the time, and the Cougars played to relatively small crowds at an off-campus gym. Even Judge Roy Hofheinz was skeptical about using a cavernous facility like the Astrodome for that kind of event. But Lewis was adamant, putting up $10,000 of his own money to compensate both UCLA and the Cougars. That was enough to earn the assent of the NCAA, and the game was on.

POPGATES:

How did fans and critics review the Dome as a venue to watch college basketball or basketball in general for that matter?

KENNETH WOMACK:

As history knows, the favored UCLA squad lost 71-69 in a thrilling game that was more heavily publicized than any NCAA basketball competition before it. The Elvin Hayes-led Cougars snapped UCLA’s amazing 47 game winning streak. The game was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was extensively covered elsewhere. It was the first college basketball game to attract more than 50,000 spectators.

Dick Enberg and Bob Petit hosted the national broadcast at a time in which coast-to-coast coverage of a regular season college basketball was unheard of. The game preempted regular network programming in major cities and many believe that this game paved the way for March Madness because it clearly demonstrated that top-quality NCAA basketball could attract, excite, and entertain a national audience. In short, it was a major triumph for the Dome and the NCAA alike. Suddenly, the idea of multipurpose stadiums as sites for games of that ilk seemed much more palatable.

POPGATES:

And why didn’t college basketball become a regular Dome staple – or did it, and it just flew under the radar?

KENNETH WOMACK:

For a time at least, it did become part of the Dome’s fare. In 1971, the Astrodome hosted the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament, drawing more than 31,000 fans for the semifinal and championship games. In later years, the Louisiana Superdome played host to the tournament in 1982.

POPGATES:

From 1971 to 1975, the Houston Rockets called the Dome its part-time home. Part-time – how’d that work? Did the fans take to the Dome as a venue for NBA hoops? Did the players?

KENNETH WOMACK:

From my experience, it worked poorly. There were plenty of diehard fans who enjoyed the Rockets’ years in the Dome, but I found it to be too spacious for regular season games. When they made the move to the Summit later in the 1970s, there was a clear difference in terms of the fan experience. As an arena, the Summit felt comparatively more intimate and the Rockets benefitted with a genuine home-field advantage with the increased connection with the fans.

POPGATES:

So back to Monmouth, home of the world’s most-famous bench mob, their basketball team is enjoying another very successful season. Is the Bench Mob still doing their thing or have they quieted things down a bit?

KENNETH WOMACK:

Clearly, the team is still playing well and making new strides for Division 1 basketball at Monmouth. To my mind, it appears like the Bench Mob has made a conscious effort to stay in the background this season. And this makes perfect sense. No one wants to see a good thing become stale, and the team is really intent on taking their game to the next level. We have a lot to be proud of with the superlative efforts of King Rice and the team. It’s a great story of professionalism and desire.