CHAMPAIGN — If Kendall Gill had a tough game at Illinois or a tough practice, he knew Lou Henson wouldn’t take it easy on him.
One of the standouts on the Flyin’ Illini team that reached the Final Four in 1989 might not have liked it at the time.
“I never knew I was going to form a real, real friendship with Coach after I got done playing,” Gill said during a radio appearance on ‘Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk,’ on WDWS 1400-AM. “While we were playing, Coach Henson was a disciplinarian, a no-nonsense guy. He didn’t really form bonds with his players while we were playing for him, but we respected him immensely.”
The respect Gill had for Henson — who died at the age of 88 on July 25 after a lengthy battle with cancer — only grew in the years after he stopped playing at Illinois. Much like it did for hundreds of other former players in regards to Henson, the all-time winningest coach in Illinois history.
Long-time Illinois men’s basketball trainer Rod Cardinal saw the effects of that first-hand.
“They were headstrong superstars in high school,” Cardinal said, “and yet, as grown men with their own families, Coach Henson’s philosophies and stories are handed down to their kids.”
The respect and admiration Henson’s former players felt for him after their playing days ended was also the same when it came to other coaches.
Henson and Norm Stewart helped ignite the rivalry between Illinois and Missouri when the two coached against each other during the Braggin’ Rights game that has turned into an annual staple in St. Louis before Christmas.
Stewart, now 85, didn’t fare well against those Illini teams Henson coached, with Henson sporting a 12-7 record in the series. Illinois won eight straight games against Stewart’s Tigers at one point, doing so from 1983 to 1990.
“I thought one year, ‘Maybe if they beat us again, we won’t have this game,’” Stewart quipped on Saturday.
Stewart, who won 634 games coaching Missouri from 1966-99, and Henson had a feisty relationship at times during the height of the series. But their relationship improved once they both got out of coaching and they both endured some health setbacks.
“What a pleasure it was for me to be with him and to be able to compete against him,” Stewart said. “We had a lot of tough times, but a lot of good times.”
Dan Dakich played against Henson’s Illini teams when he was at Indiana. The ESPN broadcaster said Saturday he talked this past week with former Purdue coach Gene Keady about Henson’s influence, particularly on the Big Ten in the 1980s when Henson, Keady, Bob Knight at Indiana and Jud Heathcote at Michigan State, among others, had their respective programs among the best in the country.
“We were just laughing about how he, Jud, Knight and everybody was competing like hell against each other,” Dakich said. “Everybody thought everybody hated each other. Maybe they did at times, but ultimately, as they got older, everybody liked each other.”
Gill can attest to that. He said when he would come back to Champaign, the Hensons would insist Gill and his family stay at their house.
“When I was playing, I never went to Coach’s house, but I can tell you, I went to his house a whole bunch after I graduated, when I was in the pros and even after I retired from the NBA,” Gill said with a laugh.
The stories and memories will continue for those close to Henson. Former Illinois men’s basketball assistant coach Mark Coomes perhaps summed up Henson’s legacy best on Saturday.
“The one thing you can say for sure is he had a profound positive effect on thousands and thousands of people,” Coomes said. “What a great life it was.”