What made Lou so special?
Email Jim Rossow at email@example.com and we'll pass on your thoughts to Mary Henson and family.
It’s a question I hear often: What’s your all-time favorite story?
Easy answer. It ran May 24, 2010.
With the headline “Legend not slowing down just yet.”
The “Legend” in this case, Lou Henson. Of course.
Coach was 78 at the time of the story. I followed him for a day of activity that left me exhausted. And impressed.
It started with a morning swim — 4:15 a.m. to be exact — and continued with golf, lunch with friends, bridge and dinner at The Ribeye in Champaign.
Before the ride-a-long, it was obvious to me Coach was a special person.
Full of energy, empathy and enthusiasm.
He put the needs of others in front of his own.
He asked personal questions — “What have you been up to? How is your family?” — and actually listened to the answers.
Who does that?
Coach Henson, that’s who.
The entire community called him “Lou.” More accurately, “Looouuu,” which filled State Farm Center every time he walked on the court that includes his signature.
Then-Illinois student Sam LeRoy helped get the ball rolling, introducing a proposal in the Student Senate to name the court in Coach Henson’s name. LeRoy was the first person to tell me Wednesday about the death of Henson, who died on Saturday and was buried Wednesday morning.
“I will miss him very much,” Sam said. “I shared only a handful of conversations with him through the years, but without fail he — and Mrs. Henson — made me feel like family every time. And I know it was like that for everyone fortunate to meet him.”
I could never bring myself to call him by his first name. Always “Coach” or “Coach Henson.” A title he wore with grace and dignity.
There are so many parts of Coach’s life to admire, starting with his marriage to his wife, Mary.
No couple is perfect, but they are as close as it comes. They playfully jabbed at each other, but it was sweet and loving. Not a speck of mean in either Henson.
Over the years, I have received unexpected notes and comments from Coach Henson and Mary. Kind words about a story or column that caught their attention.
They are treasures.
I pestered them often for interviews and they were always accommodating. No subject was off limits. They gave me details and insight that made every story better.
When I spent the day with Coach Henson a decade ago, he made me breakfast. Pancakes and sausage. Yum.
When I suffered a heart attack in 2012, I soon heard from Coach Henson and Mary, offering their get-well wishes. It was like getting a call from the Governor or a famous actor, only so much better. Coach Henson is Champaign-Urbana’s celebrity.
Every time I saw or talked to Coach Henson after that, he would ask about my health. The concern lifted my spirits. And made me want to keep fighting, just as Coach Henson had done when inflicted with cancer.
He has been an ongoing inspiration and will continue to be in the coming years.
They raised them tough in Okay, Okla.
And they raised an unbelievable coach. Working against great minds in the Big Ten and beyond, Coach Henson built an impressive resume.
Doesn’t matter that he never won a national title. His 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini was the best in the country, a late putback away from playing for it all.
Not that you ever heard Coach Henson bemoan his fate. Close losses didn’t define him. Character and perseverance and kindness did.
He is in numerous halls of fame, both national and school-level.
But there is one that is missing: the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Ask any longtime fan, “Is Coach Henson in?” And the answer is, “Yes.” Until they find out the answer is, “No.” Which is followed by the line, “He should be.”
My mission now is to do everything I can to make sure Coach Henson receives the recognition. Well deserved and way past due.
He is a Hall of Famer in LOUville (aka Champaign-Urbana).
Take another lap Coach Henson. Thanks for sharing your sense of humor, humanity and humility.
We are all better for knowing you.