CHAMPAIGN — Louis Ray “Lou” Henson was born on Jan. 10, 1932, to Joe Henson and Lora Faye Falconer Henson and grew up on a small farm near Okay, Okla., (population 300) located between Wagoner and Muskogee. Lou had seven siblings: Alma, Bill, Jimmy Joe, J.D., Rose Mary, Donald and Kenneth. Rose and Kenneth survive.
Also surviving Lou are his personal cheerleader of 65 years, Mary Catherine Brantner Henson, formerly of Lanark, Ill., and three daughters, Lori Jo Henson of Las Cruces, N.M., Lisa Rose (John) Rutter of Spring, Texas, and Leigh Anne (Coit) Edison of Loveland, Ohio. Included among other beloved survivors are 12 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews. His son, Louis Ray Henson Jr., preceded Lou in death.
After playing basketball at Okay High School, Connors State College and New Mexico A&M, Lou pursued a coaching career. His decision was greatly influenced by the extraordinary coaching instruction from high school coach Harold Nicholson, Connors coach Bobby Jack Rogers and Presley Askew, who coached him at both Connors and NM A&M (now New Mexico State University).
Throughout his own coaching career, he continued to credit these three men with instilling in him excellent knowledge of the game and inspiring him to reach for success through hard work, dedication and mental toughness. These attributes were central to his success on and off the court.
After college, Lou served as graduate assistant to his mentor, Presley Askew. He later earned his master’s degree and was offered the “B” team coaching job and a mathematics teaching position at Las Cruces High. After two years, he became the head coach while still teaching multiple math classes. His LCHS teams won three consecutive New Mexico State High School Championships and a fourth year saw them in the quarterfinals.
Hardin Simmons University (Division I at that time) in Abilene, Texas, offered Lou the head coach position. Before accepting, Lou met with the board and expressed that he would not accept the job until the school was integrated. At that time (1962), there were no African Americans on campus either as student-athletes or faculty members. The board met overnight and agreed to integrate, launching Lou’s college coaching career at age 30.
Integration of HSU was one of the proudest accomplishments of his career. After coaching and serving as athletic director three of the four years, Lou was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater, New Mexico State University.
Lou hired Keith Colson, a former NMSU teammate, Ed Murphy, one of his HSU players, and later Rob Evans, one of his former Aggie players. In their very first season, the Aggies drew national attention by twice defeating the defending NCAA champions, Texas Western (UTEP), as well as the third-ranked New Mexico Lobos.
Within two years, Lou assumed the role of athletic director in addition to the head basketball job. He managed both jobs while playing a key role in the construction of the Pan American Center, a 13,000-seat multipurpose arena. In 1970, Lou led the Aggies to the Final Four, finishing third after being defeated by defending champs UCLA.
Lou began coaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1975. He and his assistants, Tony Yates and Les Wothke, made it a priority to visit every high school in the state in order to foster positive relationships with the Illinois high school basketball coaches. During that first year, Lou and his staff visited more than 400 high schools. The foundation was being laid for a successful program one visit at a time.
Lou’s vision to rebuild the Illinois program was made possible through the hard work and dedication of his assistant coaches, Dick Nagy, Jimmy Collins and Mark Coomes. This loyal staff was responsible for recruiting the many talented and outstanding young men whom Lou had the pleasure of working with and coaching.
Returning the Illinois basketball program to prominence was culminated with the 1989 Final Four Flyin’ Illini. These Illini were seldom outhustled, outworked or better prepared. Many believe that this team would have won the national title had it not been for player injuries during the tournament. The Flyin’ Illini were considered one of the most entertaining teams in collegiate basketball history and captured the hearts of Illini Nation and basketball fans everywhere!
In the fall of 1992, the Hensons were devastated by the loss of their 35-year-old son, Lou Henson, Jr., who died in an auto accident. He had formerly served as head basketball coach at Lincoln Land Community College and was employed in the same position with Parkland College at the time of his death. This tragic event ended a long-held mutual love and passion for the game of basketball that Lou so eagerly shared with his cherished son.
Lou retired from the University of Illinois in 1996 as the school’s all-time winningest coach with 423 victories in 21 seasons.
In the fall of 1997, Lou once again took over the reins of the New Mexico State University basketball program after they had parted ways with their coach only two days before practice was to begin. After securing Mary’s approval to coach “only six months,” Lou consented, but with the stipulation that he receive no salary. At Lou’s request, New Mexico State paid him one dollar per month to coach the Aggies for the first year, with his net pay being the grand sum of 75 cents.
Lou enlisted his younger brother, Ken Henson, a former junior college basketball coach, to be his assistant. He retained Rus Bradburd, a Chicago native from the existing Aggie staff, and hired Tony Stubblefield the following season. Lou was persuaded to continue coaching at NMSU for the next six years.
In 2003, Lou was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Aggressive treatment was started at Carle Cancer Center and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Although his cancer was in remission, one year later he contracted viral encephalitis. He was treated at MountainView Regional Medical Center and later at Texas Rehabilitation Center. He returned home in a wheelchair due to paralysis and other trauma.
Lou’s assistant, Tony Stubblefield, took over as head coach during this health crisis. Lou was determined to return to the court, even if he had to coach from his wheelchair. The day before he was scheduled to take the court again, he was hospitalized with pneumonia, which ultimately ended his coaching career.
Although Lou worked tirelessly to begin to walk again, the encephalitis impacted his balance. By last count, Lou had fallen over 150 times with only one serious injury. Lou never complained about any of his health issues. He was thankful to have survived the cancer and encephalitis, and incredibly grateful for his health care providers.
Lou kept physically active by swimming, lifting weights and walking. He also enjoyed playing bridge, gin and checkers. He played bridge with friends both at home and at the local bridge center, Ginger Creek. As Lou’s health declined before he passed away on Saturday, July 25, 2020, he remained a fierce competitor, even against his wonderful caregiver. He never lost that competitive edge and the indomitable will to WIN!
Lou’s family wishes to express sincerest appreciation to all medical staff and health care professionals who provided him with such exceptional care through the years. Also, deepest gratitude goes out to all the neighbors, family, friends and colleagues who have offered endless love and support.
The Henson family asks that in lieu of flowers, friends and fans consider a memorial contribution in Coach Henson's name to one or more of the following: Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces, New Mexico, 330 W. Las Cruces Ave., Las Cruces, NM 88005; Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club of Champaign, 201 E. Park St., Champaign, IL 61820; Cunningham Children’s Home, 1301 N. Cunningham Ave., Urbana, IL 61802; NMSU Foundation Inc., Lou and Mary Henson Endowed Scholarship, P.O. Box 3590, Las Cruces, NM 88003; U of I Foundation, Lou and Mary Henson Men’s Basketball Academic Assistance Fund, 1305 W. Green St., Urbana, IL 61801.
Morgan Memorial Home, Savoy, was in charge of arrangements. Condolence may be made at morganmemorialhome.com.