Erwin Center Days Are Numbered, but Memories of Record Season Haven’t Faded
By Jillian Kushner
For Reporting Texas
On a late November evening in 1978, the University of Texas men’s basketball team beat Northern Montana 148-71. It was a record start to a record season.
Before the game, the team looked asleep. “They were like zombies in the dressing room. I didn’t think they’d be that enthusiastic,” Abe Lemons, the head coach, told a reporter at the time. But looks deceived. The Longhorns set a record that still stands — for most points by a team at the Frank Erwin Center — and they did it without the three-point shot, which the NCAA would not adopt for another eight years.
Jim Krivacs, a senior guard, scored 33 of his 43 points in the first half, still records for most points in a half and in a game.
It was that kind of year for Texas basketball. Playing their second season in the new arena, the Longhorns drew an average of 15,886 fans per home game, a virtual season-long sellout. The crowds were larger than in 2002-2003, when the team made the Final Four, and during the lone year Kevin Durant played in burnt orange, 2006-2007.
Men’s games now average about 11,000 spectators, and construction of the Dell Medical School means the Erwin Center will be demolished in the coming decade. That leaves two questions: Where will the Texas men’s and women’s basketball teams play when the Erwin Center is gone? And will there ever be another seat-filled season like the one in 1978-79?
Following a 26-5 season capped by an NIT Championship, the 1978-79 Longhorns entered the year with four returning starters, a popular head coach and high expectations. Fans seemed happy to leave behind the days of Longhorn basketball at the old Gregory Gym.
Gregory was small, cramped and antiquated. “We said [Gregory] fit 7,000, but the real number was more like 4,000,” said Bill Little, the play-by-play announcer for Texas basketball in the 1970s.
Steve Wilson, a junior at UT in ‘79, called it “a glorified high school gym.”
The Longhorns won all 15 games at home in their first season at the Erwin Center. They went 21-8 and tied for the Southwest Conference championship.
“We worked together, we became a machine,” said Krivacs, the high-scoring guard.
The Longhorns had just one home loss, to No. 14 Arkansas, 68-58.
It was a controversial loss after Razorbacks Coach Eddie Sutton chastised Texas player Johnny Moore for what Sutton considered a dirty play.
“Abe (Lemons) and Sutton went at it,” Little said. “Abe said, ‘If he ever does anything like that to my players again, I’ll rip his Sunday suit off.’ ”
“Likely, there was no malice intended,” Dallas Morning Newscolumnist Skip Bayless wrote for the next day. “But doesn’t [Sutton] realize that with 15,300 worked into an orange frenzy, he holds the detonator in his hand. Surely he knows he could make the Super Drum the Super Tomb?”
The fans came to see the coach. They came to see the Erwin Center. They came to see a winning team.
“It was excitement of the new and excitement of the good,” Little said.
He said 8,000 season tickets and 8,000 student tickets were sold each game, which guaranteed large crowds. “That team was a big part of my life,” Little said. “[Their success was] a coming together of all magic forces to make it work.”
Now people wonder where the Longhorns will play next. The memories left in the once-proclaimed state-of-the-art facility will remain, especially among players who dribbled and shot in front of those record crowds. “Memories will be lost, but that’s progress,” said Ron Baxter, a junior on the ’79 team.
“You don’t get in the way of progress. Records are meant to be broken,” Baxter said. “We waited 30 years for Erwin Center. It’s been 30 years since. It’s time for something new.”