John Wooden was apprehensive about playing Houston in 1968. It was going to be a spectacle, too garish for the legendary coach’s famous business-like approach. And it was going to be a tough opponent in the nonconference season.
“He wanted to play patsy teams he could beat,” Rapoport said of Wooden’s nonconference scheduling philosophy.
Yet Wooden bowed to UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan, who understood the game’s role in growing the sport.
The appeal of UCLA’s star-studded regular-season matchup paved the way for more of the marquee games required to make the cut for an NCAA Tournament bid now. Wooden’s Bruins played 24 nonconference teams ranked in the AP Poll in the 19 seasons leading up to their matchup with Houston in 1968. During the final seven years of his UCLA tenure, the Bruins faced 14 ranked foes.
The premiere regular-season matchups boost college basketball as an entertainment good, Ohanian said, as sports require two high-performing teams that are evenly matched to reach their peak quality.
UCLA and Houston fit the bill.
Each school received $125,000 for the event, according to the Houston Chronicle, four times more than the payout for the NCAA tournament that spring. That sum seems more and more like a bargain as the years progress.
“The UCLA-Houston game kind of fast-forwarded college basketball by at least 10 years and consequently created a lot more revenue,” Ohanian said. “I think neither UCLA nor Houston was adequately compensated for doing that favor for the rest of college basketball, but they certainly did.”