If looking to win a bet, ask someone to name the first NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four to take place inside an NFL football stadium.
Clue: It happened a few half-court heaves from what unfolds this weekend.
The Houston Astrodome, the definition of cutting edge in its 1960s and ’70s prime, opened its doors for the 1971 Final Four, headlined by coach John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.
Other programs on hand were Villanova, Western Kentucky and Kansas.
The sport’s historical timeline never seems to include the dome’s amenities. Perhaps because the court was situated smack dab in the middle of the main floor.
Nevertheless, 31,765 spectators filed into the Astrodome for the title matchup between UCLA and Villanova. Only a select few enjoyed a courtside view of the proceedings; most others needed high-powered binoculars to take in what was happening what seemed like three area codes away.
John Oldham, the Western Kentucky coach from 1964 to 1971, once referred to it as “like playing outdoors.”
Bird vs. Magic was still eight years away. Jordan’s game-winner against Georgetown wouldn’t happen for another 11 years. Indiana University guard Keith Smart’s baseline heroics against Syracuse still were 16 years in the future.
The Astrodome, as usual, was way ahead of its time.
The next 10 Final Fours would be played inside conventional basketball arenas, but a permanent shift to the “the bigger, the better” mentality wasn’t far off.
In 1982, the Louisiana Superdome provided a pulsating conclusion to the season as North Carolina edged Georgetown in the championship game.
Then came an era of tradition mixed in with the future — seven of the next 14 NCAA Tournaments played out inside some massive football structure, the other seven in conventional arenas.
Saturday’s semifinals — Oklahoma vs. Villanova in Game 1 and Syracuse vs. North Carolina in Game 2 — are the 20th consecutive to unfold in a spacious facility designed to accommodate an altogether different sport.
This time it’s Houston’s NRG Stadium, known as Reliant Stadium in its only previous hosting (2011).
The next five men’s Final Four locations are the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona; the Alamodome in San Antonio; U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis; Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta; and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
All will incorporate a curtain of some sort to hide the unused seats. This, combined with strategic location of the playing court in one section of the stadium, makes for more desirable seating for spectators.
Meanwhile, the Houston Astrodome, once referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” sits quietly, having closed its doors in 2008.
No telling if the home of the first animated stadium scoreboard and star of one of the 1970s “Bad News Bears” movies ever gets a chance at a second sports life.
If so, for kicks, let’s hold another Final Four there. Only this time with a fan-friendly seating design.