BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Here are eight words you surely never thought you’d hear attributed to longtime Illinois coaching great Lou Henson: “I’m gonna have to pull for Indiana now.”
What in the name of Harry Combes is going on?
Well, that was Henson’s response when former player Rob Judson called last weekend informing Henson that he had taken a job on Tom Crean’s staff as the Hoosiers’ director of basketball operations.
“That was really something for me to hear Coach Henson say that,” said Judson, who will be on the bench Sunday at Assembly Hall with the Hoosiers for their game against Illinois (2 p.m., BTN). “There’s irony in this profession, that’s for sure.”
Henson wasn’t the only former Illinois coach who had to make sure Judson wasn’t pulling their legs when he shared the news. Lon Kruger, now the coach at Oklahoma, responded to Judson’s text message with “What?” And Bill Self’s text response read “Indiana??”
Judson, 56, worked on staff with Kruger and Self during his tenure as an assistant coach at Illinois from 1996 to 2001. Once they were assured this wasn’t a prank, they offered their support.
“Even my former Illini teammates like Neil Bresnahan and Larry Lubin, they all said the same thing,” Judson said. “They’re all just happy I’m back coaching, even if it is at the big rival.”
How did the former Illinois Academic All-America guard, whose dad (Phil) and uncles (Paul and Howie) starred for the Illini, wind up on the staff of his alma mater’s most bitter rival more than halfway through the season?
“It was out of the blue, a complete surprise,” Judson said.
After spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Illinois State following a six-year stint as the head coach at Northern Illinois, Judson left the Redbirds’ program at the end of last season and was in the midst of taking what he called a sabbatical.
During his sabbatical, Judson traveled around the country, visiting coaching friends, including Kruger and Self, to observe practices and take a few notes.
On Jan. 12, Judson went to Louisville for the game between the hometown Cardinals and SMU. SMU assistant coach Tim Jankovich was the head coach for five seasons at Illinois State while Judson was there, so he was visiting with Jankovich and SMU guard Nic Moore, another former Redbird.
From there, he went to Lexington for Missouri’s women’s game against Kentucky. The Tigers are coached by former ISU coach Robin Pingeton. Judson saw the Missouri women practice before leaving town.
From there, he went to Indiana on an invitation from good friend and Hoosiers assistant Tim Buckley. He watched Indiana practice and was in the stands for the Hoosiers’ upset of then-No. 3 Wisconsin.
“After the game I was in the locker room, and Coach Crean and the coaches were talking about the game, and then Coach Crean asked if I wanted to join them,” Judson said.
Not even realizing the Hoosiers had an opening on their staff when Calbert Cheaney left to take a coaching position at Saint Louis, Judson didn’t think about the offer long.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ ”
Since then, the last 12 days have been a whirlwind for Judson. He returned to the home in Bloomington, Ill., that he shares with wife Kim, packed up some belongings and headed east to the other Bloomington.
Judson and Kim had been planning on him returning to coaching but not until after this season. Kim, a native of Tuscola, is a marketing professor at Illinois State. She will commute some to see Rob in Indiana, and he will commute some to visit her back in Illinois when the basketball schedule allows. The Judsons have two grown children, Matthew and Karin, and another daughter, Kristin, who’s a senior at Miami (Ohio).
“Kim really, really enjoys teaching at Illinois State. We knew that college basketball could take me anywhere,” Judson said. “We have good flexibility. It’ll work out just fine.”
In his new position at Indiana, Judson isn’t permitted to recruit off campus or provide on-court instruction during games and practices. He can offer guidance to players who seek it and actively participate in on-campus recruiting activities. Judson, who also served as an assistant at Bradley from 1991 to ’96, hasn’t thought beyond this season about whether he’d like to join a staff as a top-three assistant.
“I am doing what I’ve always done, which is take it one day at a time, do the best with what I have and where I’m at,” he said. “I have a very short vision, nearsighted vision. It’s like it was the appointed time for me to
get back into college basketball. I just feel very fortunate to be here. I’m going to do the best I can with this spot.”
This isn’t Judson’s first go-around with basketball in the Hoosier State. As a youngster growing up in northern Illinois, Judson attended the Hoosier Basketball Camp every year in Angola, Ind., headed by David McCracken, son of Indiana coaching legend Branch McCracken.
“The summer before I went to play at Illinois, I worked there for six weeks as a counselor/coach,” Judson said.
With strong Orange and Blue bloodlines, Judson’s loyalties were with the Illini, though.
Only once in his career has Judson coached against Illinois. It was the 2011-12 season when the Illini defeated the Redbirds 63-59 in Cancun, Mexico.
“Jon Ekey hit a big shot for us in that game,” Judson recalled.
Sitting opposite the Illinois bench Sunday will be strange for Judson.
“I just try to be professional. In college basketball, there’s so many twists and turns,” he said. “The people you’re competing against one day could be your teammates and coaching partners somewhere down the road. The
Big Ten is a competitive league, and everybody’s just trying to do their best to win games.”