Guy Lewis, whose dazzling Phi Slama Jama teams electrified the city during the 1980’s and whose visionary showmanship helped transform college basketball into a televised stadium event, died on Thanksgiving morning at the age of 93.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Hall of Fame Coach Guy V. Lewis, who passed away this morning,” UH athletic director Hunter Yurachek said on Twitter. “A true Cougar legend.”
With his signature red polka-dot towel in hand, Guy Lewis was the winningest coach in UH history, compiling 592 victories and making five Final Four trips while coaching such stars as Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in 30 seasons from 1956 to 1986.
Off the court, he was regarded as a visionary and innovator for putting together the 1968 “Game of the Century” against top-ranked UCLA at the Astrodome and for being one of the first college basketball coaches to embrace racial integration in the South.
“He belongs on a pedestal with the greatest coaches ever to coach the game,” Drexler said. “Where the game of basketball is today is because of Guy V. Lewis.”
In recent years, Guy Lewis was rarely seen in public. He suffered a stroke in 2002 that confined him to a wheelchair and affected his ability to communicate.
One of his final public appearances came last November at the inaugural Houston basketball tip-off dinner at Hofheinz Pavilion, where the court bears his name.
“He was a giant of the game,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson said Thursday. “He was Houston’s Hall of Famer. He left his fingerprints, handprints, footprints … Anything that’s done in basketball here from now until eternity will have his imprint on it.”
Guy Lewis is survived by his two sons, Vern and Terry. He was preceded in death by Dena, his wife of nearly 73 years, and daughter Sherry.
For all his success, though, Guy Lewis struggled to gain acceptance among Hall of Fame voters for never winning a national championship. The Cougars made three straight Final Four trips in the heyday of Phi Slama Jama, twice finishing as national runner-up in 1983 and 1984.
It was 27 years after his retirement – and in declining health – that Lewis was finally inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. On that day, a star-studded cast of former players, among them Hayes, Olajuwon and Drexler, were on hand to celebrate with Lewis.
“I never thought of it as a job,” Lewis said upon announcing his retirement in 1986. “It’s always been for me a crusade, to build this into a great program.”
That he did. After beginning his coaching career with three losing seasons, Lewis led the Cougars to 27 straight non-losing seasons, winning 20 games 11 times and at least 30 five times. He made Final Four appearances in 1967, ’68, ’82, ’83 and ’84.
“There’s no need to compare him to other coaches, because he’s one of a kind,” said BYU coach Dave Rose, who played for Lewis from 1980-83.
Guy Lewis’ last two Final Four teams were his most successful, producing a combined 63 wins and only eight losses en route to two national championship games as the high-flying, rim-rattling fraternity known as Phi Slama Jama became a name brand in college basketball
“He put the University of Houston on the map,” UH system chancellor and president Renu Khator said. “He’s a giant and an icon.”
Guy Lewis was regarded as an innovator and trendsetter. He was the architect of the “Game of the Century” between No. 1 UCLA, featuring Lew Alcindor, and No. 2 UH. On Jan. 20, 1968, in front of a record crowd of 52,693, UH defeated UCLA 71-69.
“The coaches I hated coaching against were the real good ones, and Guy was one of those,” legendary UCLA coach John Wooden said in 1998. “I think Guy took a bum rap because he never won a national championship.”
Guy Lewis also was among the first coaches in the South to embrace racial integration in the 1960s, signing Hayes and Don Chaney as the first black players in program history.
“He’s the father of modern basketball in the South,” Drexler said. “He was instrumental in all kinds of change. He was a visionary, and he was a winner.”
Guy Vernon Lewis was born on March 19, 1922, in Arp, Texas, just outside Tyler, the son of an independent oil wildcatter at the height of the East Texas oil boom.
After serving as an Army Air Corps flight instructor in World War II, Guy Lewis returned and played two years at Rice and eventually decided to attend UH in 1946. A 6-foot-3 co-captain, Lewis was the leading scorer on the first two UH basketball teams in 1946-47.
Guy Lewis returned to UH for the 1953-54 season, serving two seasons as an assistant before his promotion to head coach when Alden Pasche retired in 1956.
UH reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1961, one of 14 appearances under Lewis. In all, Lewis coached 15 All-Americans and 10 NBA first-round picks, among them Donnie Schyerak, Gary Phillips, Hayes, Chaney, Drexler, Olajuwon, Dwight Davis, Dwight Jones, Otis Birdsong, Rob Williams and Michael Young.
Three players – Hayes, Drexler and Olajuwon – are in the Hall of Fame and were voted among the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all-time.
“He made my dreams come true,” said Hayes, who delivered a video message at Lewis’ Hall induction in 2013.
Guy Lewis earned the first of two national coach of the year awards in 1968, when the Hayes-led Cougars won 31 games and reached the Final Four, where they lost the rematch to UCLA 101-69.
In 1983, led by Drexler, Olajuwon and Larry Micheaux, the top-ranked Cougars were heavy favorites against North Carolina State in the national championship game. UH was stunned 54-52 when Lorenzo Charles snagged Dereck Whittenburg’s airball and dunked it at the buzzer for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history and is an iconic moment that is replayed over and over every March during the NCAA Tournament.
Guy Lewis gave a simple description of the most painful loss in his 30-year coaching career.
“He grabbed it, and he dunked it,” Lewis said. “And that was that.”
With Drexler leaving early for the NBA, Lewis put together another Final Four run and reached the 1984 championship game, losing to Georgetown and Patrick Ewing 84-75. Olajuwon opted for the NBA instead of returning for his senior year.
Asked at his retirement announcement how he would like to be remembered, Lewis said, “Not for the wins and losses but that every team I put on the floor was hustling and aggressive. That was a Guy Lewis trademark.”
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