Michael credits Henson for shaping his life — on and off the court

Michael credits Henson for shaping his life — on and off the court

CHAMPAIGN — Tom Michael has a photo from his playing days in his office at Eastern Illinois. He's pulling down a rebound. Then LSU standout and future NBA MVP Shaquille O'Neal is in the background.

"Most of the comments are not about, 'Oh, that's you or that's Shaquille,' " said the former Illinois basketball player and administrator turned EIU athletic director. "It's, 'Boy, you guys wore short shorts back then.' That dates me about as much as anything."

Michael's time as an Illinois student-athlete — those moments where he teamed up with and squared off against some of the nation's best players — is what pushed him toward athletic administration as a career.

Those five years playing in the early 1990s for Hall of Fame coach Lou Henson, who will celebrate his 86th birthday today, helped shape Michael's entire life to this day.

"That's why I'm doing what I'm doing because of those experiences I had at Illinois as a student-athlete," Michael said. "Provide them experiences that when they're older, 25 years later, they can talk about their experiences at EIU as being something positive. The lifelong friendships that they have. The relationships they have that make them appreciate what all those practices, games, ups and downs and everything else allow you to be a part of."

Michael first met Henson when he was a freshman at Carlyle High School. The Illini coach had just signed his high school teammate Phil Kunz in the same class with the likes of Kendall Gill and Stephen Bardo. The relationship continues to this day between Michael and Henson.

"To be able to tell people that I played for Coach Henson and immediately they know who it is, what he's about and what he stands for is really a special thing to have done that and be in his program for five years at a great institution," Michael said.

How Henson has handled the health issues thrown his way the last dozen years is something that doesn't surprise Michael. It's merely a reflection of who Henson is as a person in that he continues to fight.

"It's not easy, (but) he's always got a smile on his face," Michael said. "He's always going to shake hands. He's always going to talk to people. Most of those times you don't have any idea how much pain he might be in, but he's never going to let anybody know that. That's a credit to him as a human being."

Michael credits Henson — and then Illinois assistants Jimmy Collins, Dick Nagy and Mark Coomes — for continually pushing him during his playing career.

"That's what you hope you find in a program," Michael said. "I tell the recruits I meet with today, 'It's our job to give them back better than we got them.'"

Michael is in his third year as athletic director at EIU. His worlds collided in early November when his alma mater and the athletic department he now runs squared off in a charity exhibition game, and the Panthers pulled off an 80-67 upset of the Illini at Lantz Arena in Charleston.

"We haven't quite hung any banners like Central Florida has done with their national championship," Michael quipped. "It was a great thing for EIU and our basketball program to have that kind of atmosphere in Lantz Arena and have our kids exposed to that. It was a special night and good to see a lot of familiar folks."

Michael isn't opposed to the idea of getting Illinois and Eastern Illinois back on the court — or football field — again. The Panthers opened their basketball season at Nebraska. Indiana is a future football opponent.

"I would love to be able to be a part of that whether it's basketball or football," Michael said, although adding he hasn't spoken with Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman about the idea. "If it works, it would be outstanding."

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
mvillini wrote on January 12, 2018 at 11:01 am

How in the world did we ever let Michels get away from here. Some one was not  on he ball ! Whitman is an improvement over what we had, but not s good as what Michaels Will become !