The Game that Made College Basketball Must-See TV
Dick Enberg was on the call for the 1979 NCAA Championship Game. Sitting next to Al McGuire and Billy Packer in comprising one of the great broadcast trios of all time, he described the legendary battle between Michigan State and Magic Johnson against Indiana State and Larry Bird.
Michigan State won the title that night, but the big winner was NBC. The 24.1 rating for the game remains an all-time high for a NCAA final, and likely never will be eclipsed in the modern TV landscape.
The Magic-Bird showdown definitely had a profound effect on propelling the NCAA tournament to new heights during the 1980s. But don’t tell Enberg that it was the game that put college basketball on the map.
Instead, Enberg points to being on the call for a landmark telecast that occurred 11 years earlier. On Jan. 20, 1968, UCLA faced Houston in the Astrodome in what Enberg says was the ultimate game-changer for college basketball. Given the game’s setting, Enberg reached for an appropriate metaphor.
“The launching pad for the incredible popularity of college basketball on television, I believe, started right there in Houston, close to NASA,” Enberg once told the Los Angeles Daily News. “That really shot the rocket into the sky.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the evening Houston, led by Elvin Hayes’ 39 points, pulled off a thrilling 71-69 victory over Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins, which hadn’t lost a game in two years. One of the greatest games of all time had an even greater significance from a broadcast standpoint.
The so-called “Game of the Century” in college basketball is credited with having a similar impact on the sport as the famous 1958 Baltimore-New York Giants title game, aka “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” had on the NFL.
UCLA-Houston was the first college basketball game to be televised coast-to-coast, ultimately showing that there could be a national audience for the sport. To put things in perspective, the 1961 NCAA final between Cincinnati and Ohio State only was seen in the state of Ohio.
Hayes and Alcindor were the big stars that night in Houston, but it was the driving force behind the match-up, Eddie Einhorn, who left an indelible impact on college basketball.
“Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and (Einhorn) invented college basketball on television,” Enberg observed in How March Became Madness, a 2006 book Einhorn wrote with Ron Rapoport.
Einhorn truly was a unique man. Growing up in New Jersey, he got his first taste of college basketball in the early 1950s by attending games at Madison Square Garden. While at law school at Northwestern in the late 50s, he founded a radio network, charging stations $100 for college games. His office consisted of using a pay phone in his dorm.
Einhorn was hooked and went into broadcasting.
“I wanted to keep doing what I loved,” said Einhorn in a 2013 story in the New York Times. “I looked around and said every school is getting thousands of new fans every year just through graduation, so there has to be something here.”
Einhorn eventually formed TVS (short for Television Sports), which produced and distributed syndicated regional college basketball telecasts. He was a master hustler in trying to sell the college game.
Wayne Duke, the former commissioner of the Big Ten and Big 8 who died in 2017, once said Einhorn was “omnipresent.”
“I wouldn’t call him a pest, but he was persistent. He got things done,” Duke said.
However, Einhorn faced considerable challenges. College basketball was an obscure item on the sports TV landscape. His venture showed a $450,000 loss for the 1967-68 season. He sought a big extravaganza to turn things around.
Einhorn’s TVS won the bidding and paid $27,000 for the rights to air the UCLA-Houston game. He worked feverishly in putting together a network of approximately 120 stations throughout the country. He was adding outlets practically until tip-off. Then he continued to pound the phones in the first half to add more sponsors.
“By the time the second half started, the telecast had become a huge hit across the country,” Enberg recalled in Einhorn’s book. “It was a great game and it looked as if Houston might pull off the upset. We were getting calls from all over from advertisers wanting to buy time.
“So while the game was progressing, (Einhorn was) passing me handwritten notes — (he) didn’t have the best handwriting in the world — and I was trying to decipher those 10-second, drop-in commercials. I was plugging cars and shaving cream and everything else, all from handwritten notes.”
UCLA put in one stipulation for the telecast; Enberg, the Bruins announcer, had to call the game. It proved to be the first time a national audience heard Enberg.
Only 33 at the time, Enberg remembered his anticipation for the game. “My voice was up an octave from the start,” he said. “You just had a sense it was going to be a great game.”
Indeed, the game lived up to its billing and then some. For starters, there was the unique setting with 52,000 people watching the action on a court that for most seemed like a spec in the vast Astrodome.
Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was hampered by an eye issue, shooting only 4 of 18 from the field. The Bruins, though, managed to tie the game at 69-69 with just under a minute left. Fittingly, it fell on Hayes to deliver the heroics, as he calmly hit two clutch free throws with 28 seconds remaining. With the victory secure, Hayes was carried off the Astrodome floor by jubilant teammates and fans.
The big winner proved to be college basketball and Einhorn. The game convinced NBC of the potential for college basketball. In 1969, it became the first major network to broadcast the NCAA Final, at a cost of more than $500,000.
Einhorn’s TVS also took off with its college basketball coverage. He eventually sold the network in 1973 for $5 million.
Einhorn would go on to join his old law friend Jerry Reinsdorf as co-owner of the Chicago White Sox. He was involved in creating one of the first regional sports networks with SportsVision in Chicago. He died in 2016 at the age of 80.
Enberg, meanwhile, became a classic voice for several generations of sports fans with his work at NBC and CBS. He died last December at the age of 82.
Einhorn and Enberg leave behind long legacies. They always will be linked by one that night in Houston 50 years ago. Enberg always viewed Einhorn as “a visionary.”
“He was so far ahead of anyone in television at the time,” Enberg said. “He saw how truly big college basketball could be, and had a major hand in making all that happen. The networks were way, way behind Eddie Einhorn.”
Back in 1968, Einhorn admits he never could have imagined using the word “billions” to describe the money involved in the current NCAA tournament TV package with CBS and Turner Sports. But he definitely saw the game’s potential.
“I didn’t know it would ever get this big,” Einhorn told the New York Times in 2013 “But it shows I was right.”