Lou Henson

Former Illinois men's basketball coach Lou Henson acknowledges the crowd while taking his seat courtside for the first half of the Illini's game against Notre Dame on Dec. 2, 2015 at State Farm Center in Champaign. Henson, who was on hand for a dedication of the court in his name, died on Saturday at the age of 88.

Listen to this article

{child_flags:top_story}Former players, coaches remember Henson’s legacy

{child_byline}BOB ASMUSSEN

asmussen@news-gazette.com{/child_byline}

CHAMPAIGN — Hall of Famer Lou Henson, the winningest coach in Illinois basketball history with 423 victories, has died. He was 88 years old.

Henson, who battled health issues late in life, including cancer, passed away on Saturday.

Henson holds the record for wins at Illinois and New Mexico State. He led both schools to the Final Four, taking New Mexico State in 1970 and Illinois in 1989. The latter team was the beloved “Flyin’ Illini,” which reached a No. 1 ranking during the season and lost on a last-second basket against eventual champion Michigan in the Final Four at Seattle’s Kingdome.

Henson was selected for the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015 and attended induction ceremonies in Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s such a great honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Henson said shortly before the ceremony. “There are a lot of people who deserve it more than I do. I’m just happy to be one of them.

“It’s a combination of everybody we’ve been in contact with. It took all of that for this to happen.”

In June 2017, Henson was picked as the first member of the second Hall of Fame Class at Illinois.

The basketball courts at Illinois and New Mexico State are named in Henson’s honor. He is one of only two coaches to have two courts in their

name. The other is John Wooden (Indiana State and UCLA).

Born in Okay, Okla., on Jan. 10, 1932, Henson played basketball at New Mexico A&M.

Henson first picked up a ball in elementary school. He was a star in high school.

Hank Iba was the coach at Oklahoma State, where Henson wanted to play.

“I didn’t have a scholarship offer (from Iba),” Henson said.

Henson began his coaching career at Las Cruces High School in 1956.

He was an assistant at first, then became a successful head coach.

“His first goal was to win a high school state championship,” Mary Henson said. “We discussed that. I remember it well. The first three

years, he won state championships.”

His first college job was at Hardin-Simmons in 1962. He went 67-36 in four seasons with the Cowboys and helped integrate the program.

“That’s one of the proudest things in my career,” Henson said. “That ranks right up there at the top. That is something that is very special to us.”

He moved to his alma mater in 1966, leading the Aggies to 173 wins in nine seasons. New Mexico State reached the NCAA tournament five times.

He was hired at Illinois in 1975, inheriting a team that went 8-18 in one season under Gene Bartow.

“When I came in, I really had concerns about the job because they had been to the NCAA tournament one time in 24 years,” Henson said. “We had to start from scratch.”

Henson and his staff started by going to high schools across the state, visiting with every coach possible.

“We wanted to build relationships,” Henson said.

It worked. The high school coaches in Illinois gained trust in Henson, with some of his best Illini comprised of players from Illinois.

Henson also had to build the fan base.

“The first game was an exhibition we had in the Assembly Hall,” Henson said. “We had 3,000 people there.”

Henson formed the Orange Krush, a student group that has become one of the best in the nation.

Henson was two games over .500 in his first three seasons at Illinois. His fourth team went 19-11, including a stunning win against No. 1 Michigan State. Eddie Johnson sealed the victory against the eventual national champions with a basket in the final seconds.

Henson’s fifth team won 22 games and earned a berth in the NIT, where it finished third.

In 1980-81, Henson’s Illini were 21-8 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1963. Illinois went to the NCAA tournament nine times in a 10-year stretch, including the 1989 Final Four run and another appearance in the Elite Eight.

After a two-year break, the Illini returned to the NCAA tournament in 1993, starting a three-year run.

Henson retired at Illinois late in the 1995-96 season. His final Illini team lost in the first round of the NIT at home to Alabama.

Retirement didn’t take for Henson, who returned to his alma mater as interim head coach in 1997. He eventually became New Mexico State’s permanent head coach and worked seven more seasons, leading the Aggies to the NCAA tournament in 1999 and the NIT in 2000.

Henson compiled another 135 wins in his second stint at New Mexico State before retiring for good from coaching in 2005. Henson split his time between Champaign and Las Cruces. The family stayed in the same Champaign house they first bought when he took the job at Illinois.

Henson built strong friendships over the years with his players, assistants and staff.

One of those former players, Jimmy Collins, later joined Henson on the staff at Illinois. Collins helped bring the players to C-U that led the team to the Final Four. Collins first got to know Henson when he a star at New Mexico State.

“I think the first thing Coach Henson taught me was discipline,” Collins said. “The discipline you need to exhibit to really, really be successful, not only in basketball, but in life. There has to be discipline.

“The other thing he taught me was focus. Think about whatever move you are going to make and then make the move. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out, sometimes it does, but nine times out of 10 it will work out.”

Collins also learned life lessons from Henson.

“When I played for Coach Henson, he was 31 years old,” Collins said. “He was a young guy with energy. He was always about you as a player and as a person. I didn’t understand it then because I was 17. Later on in life, as I grew and I got into the coaching game, I understood perfectly what he was doing benefitted me in my life. I really appreciated what he brought to me.

“I was very, very blessed.”

Countless others felt the same way, including current Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, who worked with Henson at Illinois as a manager and student assistant coach.

“He was a friend, a mentor, a second father. All of the above,” Phillips said. “He and Mary have meant a lot for myself and my wife Laura and our five children. He was really instrumental in my life at a critical time. I’ll always be grateful.”

Deon Thomas became Illinois’ career scoring leader during the Henson era.

“When I played for Coach Henson, I did not understand how much he meant to me and the lessons he was trying to give or how much he cared about his players,” said Thomas, now a part of the school’s radio broadcast team after scoring 2,129 points with the Illini from 1990-94.

Thomas got to know Henson better after his playing days ended.

“That’s when you really start to see a lot of the lessons and start to appreciate a lot of what Coach Henson was trying to instill in you as a player and as a man,” Thomas said.

Those lessons paid off for Thomas when he went into coaching.

“My love for Coach Henson grew as my maturity level grew,” Thomas said. “As a coach, I would often call Coach Henson and talk to him about various situations in dealing with players and referees. He was always right there to opine on the things I had questions about.”

Many of the players from the 1993-94 team, including Thomas, celebrated the 25th anniversary in 2018 from one of the most famous moments during Henson’s career. In a 1993 game against bitter rival Iowa in Champaign, Illini Andy Kaufmann buried a three-pointer at the buzzer for a court-storming victory.

Former high school quarterback T.J. Wheeler threw the pass that led to Kaufmann’s heroics.

Wheeler will always be thankful for Henson’s response to a family emergency during his Illinois career.

His mom and sister were in a bad car accident his senior year.

“Every day, Coach called my mom at the hospital,” Wheeler said. “Just like clockwork. Those are little things I’ll never forget.”

{child_tagline}

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

{/child_tagline}

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).