CHAMPAIGN — The tributes poured in swiftly mid-morning on Wednesday.
Thoughtful words and heartfelt comments continued throughout the afternoon and into the night about the life of former Illinois men’s basketball coach Lou Henson.
And they’ll likely continue for days to come about Henson, who died on Saturday at his Champaign home. He was 88 years old and was buried Wednesday morning during a private graveside service with family members present at Roselawn Cemetery in Champaign, according to the Henson family.
The all-time winningest coach in Illinois men’s basketball history with 423 victories while he roamed the sidelines for the Illini from 1975-96, Henson was more than just a coach. Especially in this community. He split time between Champaign and Las Cruces, N.M., where he also coached New Mexico State during two different successful stints.
But the work he did away from the basketball court in his post-coaching career and the esteem he and his wife, Mary, built up is what stood out to Tom Michael on Wednesday.
“For Coach to pass on Saturday and for it to be kept under wraps until after the burial service is a credit to the amount of respect that Coach and Mary have in this community,” said Michael, who played at Illinois under Henson from 1990-94 and is now the athletic director at Eastern Illinois.
“Obviously, there’s people that knew about it, and Mary’s wishes were to keep it private for some personal reasons and other obvious reasons, too. People respected that and did that. That’s incredible in this day and age and says a ton about who they are as people.”
That sentiment also rang true for Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman. Whitman played football at Illinois from 1997 to 2000, just after Henson left his coaching job with the Illini, but got to know Henson and his family better during the past four years after Whitman was hired at Illinois in February 2016.
“We have lost an Illini icon,” Whitman said in a statement. “We have lost a role model, a friend and a leader. We have lost our coach. Coach Henson may be gone, but the memories he provided us, and the legacy he created, will last forever. He was responsible for almost 800 wins in the record book and countless Fighting Illini moments frozen in time, but Coach Henson’s true measure will be felt in the lives he touched — the lives of his former players, people on this campus and friends in our broader community. We are all better for whatever time we were privileged to spend with Coach Lou, whether it was five minutes or 50 years. He made everyone feel like a friend. I so enjoyed my time with Coach these last five years, and I will miss him.”
Illinois hired Brad Underwood to coach the men’s basketball program in March 2017, and Henson was a fan of the move when Illinois lured Underwood away after only one season at Oklahoma State. The fondness only grew once he and Underwood started to develop a relationship when Underwood arrived in Champaign.
“His achievements are legendary, but what is immeasurable are the countless lives he impacted during his 21 years in Champaign and 41 years in coaching,” Underwood said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Mary, and their family, and the hundreds of players who were fortunate enough to be led by such a tremendous man and coach. Rest in peace to the best to ever wear the orange jacket; we’ll miss you Coach.”
With his successful Illinois teams known for playing an up-tempo style, Henson attracted legions of in-state talent to Champaign during his Illini tenure. His best team, the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini, featured a starting five made up strictly of Illinois prep products in Nick Anderson, Stephen Bardo, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill and Lowell Hamilton.
“Sending my prayers and condolences to the Henson and Illini family,” Anderson, a 13-year NBA veteran, wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “We have lost a good man. Thank you Coach Henson for pushing me to be the best.”
The first Illinois team to reach the NCAA tournament under Henson happened in 1981. That team’s leading scorer, Eddie Johnson, went on to have a 17-year NBA career but called Henson “the best coach,” he ever had on Wednesday.
“Lou Henson was royalty to me,” Johnson wrote on Twitter. “He took me and shaped me and sent me on my way, but was always available to reset me when I was off. He and his wife, Mary, took their first vacation since he had become a coach to attend my wedding in 1985. I loved that man and he will never be forgotten.”
Michael understands those words more this day then perhaps any other. For most of Michael’s life, he has known Henson and knew he could rely on his former college coach imparting words of wisdom or the chance to talk basketball whenever the two caught up.
It’s why, on Wednesday, when Michael looked around his office and caught himself looking at a collage of photos that included Henson in attendance during Michael’s introductory press conference at Eastern Illinois in July 2014, he had to pause a few moments when trying to come up with the right words to capture the spirit of Henson.
“There’s a little bit of mystique about him,” Michael said. “Certainly, he was the head basketball coach at Illinois and when he came to Carlyle High School to recruit me when I was 17 years old, he was signing autographs all over the place. When he walked into a room, he had that charisma about him. His personality just attracted people to him, and the one constant piece about that is because he was genuine. People wanted to be around him. Him giving me the opportunity to play at Illinois shaped the rest of my life, and I know hundreds of other former players feel the same way.”