College hoops coaching great Henson dies at 88

Lou Henson, the all-time wins leader as men’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois and New Mexico State, died Saturday at his home in Champaign, Illinois, at age 88, his family announced Wednesday.

He was buried Wednesday in a ceremony in Champaign, which was attended by family only.

Henson began his coaching career at Las Cruces (New Mexico) High School in 1957 and spent 21 years at Illinois. He retired in 2005, 21 wins shy of becoming only the fifth coach in Division I history to win 800 games. Henson retired with a career record of 779-413, the sixth-winningest in Division I history at the time.

During a 41-year career, Henson became the winningest coach at Illinois (423) and New Mexico State (289), where he coached from 1966 to 1975 and again from 1997 to 2005. He led both schools to the Final Four — the Aggies in 1970 and the Illini in 1989.

Henson rebuilt Illinois basketball into a national power in the late 1980s. When Henson took the Illinois job in 1975, he inherited a program that was coming off back-to-back last-place finishes in the Big Ten. In his 21 years with Illinois, Henson turned the program around as he notched 12 NCAA tournament appearances.

“Our Orange and Blue hearts are heavy,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement. “We have lost an Illini icon. 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. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mary, Lisa, Lori, Leigh Anne, and the entire Henson family. Their family will always be part of ours.”

Officially, Henson has 779 major-college wins in his career at Hardin-Simmons, New Mexico State and Illinois. That doesn’t count 18 wins taken away by the NCAA when Henson served essentially as a volunteer coach after New Mexico State fired Neil McCarthy in 1997 during an NCAA investigation into violations.

The basketball courts at both Illinois and New Mexico State are named in honor of Henson.

A native of Okay, Oklahoma, Henson played guard for New Mexico State, then coached Las Cruces High School to three consecutive state championships, a run that ended in 1961.

He started coaching in the college ranks in 1962 at Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, Texas. As a condition of taking the Hardin-Simmons job, Henson insisted that the team (and thus the school) be racially integrated, a condition to which the university agreed.

“When I was contacted by Hardin-Simmons, I said no,” Henson once told the Champaign News-Gazette. “But eventually I agreed to meet with the board, and I told them I’d consider it if they would allow me to integrate the team. I told them there was no way we could be successful if we couldn’t recruit Black players. The board met the next morning and agreed, and I took the job.”

In 1966, he took over at his alma mater, New Mexico State. In his first season at NMSU, the Aggies rebounded from a 4-22 record in the prior season to finish 15-11 and go to the NCAA tournament. In 1970, Henson would help lead the Aggies to the Final Four for the only time in the school’s history. They lost in the tournament semifinal to eventual champion UCLA, the third time in three years the Aggies lost to UCLA in the tournament. Henson coached at New Mexico State for nine seasons, with six trips to the NCAA tournament and four 20-win seasons.

In 1975, Henson moved to Illinois to replace Gene Bartow, after Bartow left Illinois to replace John Wooden at UCLA. In 21 years at Illinois, Henson had a 423-224 record that included a 214-164 record in the Big Ten. The 214 wins in Big Ten games were the third-highest total at the time of his retirement. His 1988-89 Illini team won a then-school record 31 games and went to the Final Four.

After retiring from Illinois, Henson split time between his Las Cruces home and Champaign. Two days before practice for the 1997-98 season started, New Mexico State reassigned McCarthy after NCAA violations were alleged. Henson agreed to be interim coach. He took the job for a year and a salary of $1 per month.

“I got paid every other month,” Henson once told reporters in 2004. “I got three checks, and they were for 77 cents of net pay. I still have them.”

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