Contrary to what some might think or might not even know, Texas A&M-Commerce/East Texas State has a strong tradition in Men’s Basketball, and as many know has had a lot of recent success in Women’s Hoops. This past season saw the largest attended Women’s game in program history as the Lion Women took down defending National Champion Lubbock Christian in Commerce on January 30th. It was the annual “Fill The Fieldhouse” game, a tradition that is beloved by the University Community.
When the University Fieldhouse was built in 1950, Basketball was a very popular sport in America and in Commerce, Texas Football was not the only sport that was having a golden era. The Fieldhouse sits roughly 5,000 fans and back during that time, games were typically attended by Community members and students and the Fieldhouse was always full during those days. ET fans had a reputation of being rowdy and very enthusiastic about their team, and they had reason to. The Lion Men won conference titles in 1950, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1957, and 1958 seasons, went to the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City during the 1950, 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1958 seasons, finished in the NAIA Final 8 in 1954 and 1958, the Final 4 in 1953, and won the NAIA National Championship in the 1955 season. Fans poured into the Fieldhouse every game and filling The Fieldhouse was no problem. It was the only entertainment around and very good entertainment at that.
As time passed, the Lion program went to the postseason only once in the 1960’s and only won one LSC titles during that decade which was during the 1964 season. As the student population started to grow and time went on, more students had access to automobiles, and many of them did not see going to Basketball games as a great trip to go to. Basketball game attendance was going down, but all it took was a new coach coming in to require something from the students and townspeople.
Jim Gudger came to Commerce in 1969 and took over. Gudger had the Lions back to winning the big games very quickly. Gudger won 3 conference titles in the mid-late 70’s and took the Lions back to the NAIA tournament in ’74, ’77, ’78 and ’79. During the 1978 season, Gudger and his Lions went to the NAIA Final Four and had as good a chance as any of winning a national title. During that time, Gudger had seen that his teams were performing and attendance was going up, but he felt his team should be playing in front of much larger crowds as he had the program back to contending for National Championships. On March 3, 1978 the Lions were slated to host Howard Payne for the LSC title game. Howard Payne was a powerful program, but in an interview following up to the game with the East Texan student newspaper, Gudger was asked what he needed, and he said “tough defense from our team, and fans to fill the Fieldhouse.” ET students took up Gudger and started posting flyers all over Campus, it was time to “Fill The Fieldhouse” again. A raucous and rowdy crowd pushed the Lions to a 76-68 victory, and into a top seed in the NAIA tournament. The 1978 Lions went to the NAIA final 4 and bowed out to eventual national champion Grand Canyon, 74-69. It was a great season, but then started the Fill The Fieldhouse tradition.
Some great games have been played and the annual game is seen as a game where the entire student body and community comes out and gives the Lion teams a chance that many college teams never have, which is to play in a full arena. The game is what both Men and Women teams look forward to, as well as the student social groups. Another great tradition in Texas A&M-Commerce Lion lore.