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Henson, Aggie basketball coaching legend, dies

It was 3 in the morning, sometime in the early 1970s in some hotel room in some city, and New Mexico State men’s assistant coach Rob Evans desperately needed sleep.

But Lou Henson, his boss and his roommate on this, one of many recruiting trips, still wanted to talk basketball.

“Eventually, around 3:30, we’d go to sleep,” Evans said on Wednesday in a phone interview. “Then he’d get up at 5:30 and punch me and say, ‘Let’s go.’

“He’d say, “That’s the problem with you (assistants), you guys sleep too much.’ And on and on. He was just a tireless guy.”

Henson’s boundless energy and unflagging determination sustained him through a coaching career that spanned a half-century minus one year, not to mention a 17-year battle with cancer.

Saturday, the New Mexico and college coaching legend died in Champaign, Illinois. He was 88.

Henson was buried in a private service on Wednesday, according to the News-Gazette of Champaign-Urban, Illinois. The newspaper reported the family opted not to let the public know about the death until then, so as not to attract a large public gathering during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I got the call from Mrs. (Mary) Henson on Monday,” said Evans, who played for Henson at NMSU from 1966-68 and coached under him there from 1969-76. “… I told her he was the toughest guy I’d ever been around.”

Tough and demanding, yes. But, Evans said, Henson never forgot that coaching was about people first and winning second.

“He’d come in my office a lot of times when I was an assistant coach,” Evans said, “and sit down with me and talk basketball and different things.

“One thing he told me that stuck with me. He said, ‘The most important thing, Rob, in this business, is loyalty.’ I never forgot that.”

Henson’s coaching resume borders on the surreal.

LAS CRUCES HIGH junior varsity: 42-7 in two seasons (1956-58).

LAS CRUCES HIGH varsity: 102-16, three state titles in four seasons (1958-62).

HARDIN-SIMMONS: 67-36 over four seasons (1962-66)

NEW MEXICO STATE, first tour: 173-71 over nine seasons (1966-75) and a trip to the Final Four in 1970. He’d taken over a program that went 4-22 the year before his arrival.

ILLINOIS: 423-224 over 21 years (1975-96), a Final Four in 1989.

NEW MEXICO STATE, second tour: 135-86 over eight seasons (1997-05), stepping down for health reasons midway through the 2004-05 season.

TOTALS: 942-440 at all levels. His 779 Division I victories ranked sixth all-time when he retired and still ranks 16th today, per the NCAA website.

Henson was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. He became a member of the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame in 2005, the first year the organization expanded past Albuquerque to include inductees from around the state.

Born in Okay, Oklahoma, Henson played basketball at Connors Junior College in Warner, Oklahoma, before transferring to NMSU (then New Mexico A&M) in 1953. He graduated in 1955 and earned a master’s degree the following year, then began his coaching career with the LCHS JV.

In the summer of 1954, Henson was working in Lanark, Illinois — he had family nearby — at a Green Giant vegetable cannery. There, he met his wife of 65 years.

“They were a package, Mary and Lou,” said Dennis Latta, who covered Henson’s NMSU teams for the Albuquerque Journal during the coach’s second stint with the team. “They were always together, and she was always part of what was going on. That was sort of unique.”

In 2003, Henson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

“He used to sit in chemotherapy and study film,” Latta said. “… Often, he’d take someone with him so he could tell them what he wanted to do, sort of dictate to them. He used (chemotherapy) as a coaching situation to get ready for the next game.”

In January 2005, 18 games into the 2004-05 season, Henson announced his retirement.

“I have always been a very demanding coach,” he said at the time. “I expect my players to give 100 percent or they come out of the game.

“I can expect no less of myself. Because I am physically unable to give my all, I am taking myself out of the game.”

But in his subsequent time in Las Cruces, Henson availed himself to his successors who carried on with Aggie basketball — including current New Mexico coach Paul Weir, who can relate to Evans’ story.

The two used to meet for swimming “in the 4 to 5 a.m. slot, and he beat me there, I know that,” said Weir, a longtime assistant and one-year head coach at NMSU before coming to UNM.

“He had an incredible work motor at a much, much later stage in his life than mine. Him and Mary are amazing people — amybody who knows them knows how beautiful they are, how warm they are. I saw another side — a man with competitive drive, and pushed me on a daily basis.”

In interviews conducted by the Journal on Wednesday, two words in description of Henson kept coming up: “gentleman” and “genuine.”

Fran Fraschilla, UNM’s head coach from 1999-2002, said he was stunned to get a call from Henson before his first game against the Aggies in Las Cruces. Henson, he said, invited him to speak at an NMSU boosters club meeting the afternoon of the game.

“He introduces me, and you’d think he was introducing John Wooden,” Fraschilla, an ESPN basketball commentator now, said. “There was a part of me that thought it was a little phony, but as I got to know him in my three years (at UNM) and later on, he was the ultimate gentleman.

“He was obviously a great coach, but I also found him to be a really decent man from a bygone era when coaches could try to rip each other’s throats out during a game and still be friends after the game.”

Henson, Latta said, “was a class act, and that’s in a world where not everybody is a class act,” Latta said. “… He was always honest with me, and that went a long way.

“You don’t find anybody that has an unkind word about Lou, and that’s such an absolute rarity.”

Henson is survived by his wife, Mary, and daughters Lisa, Lori and Leigh Anne. A son, 35-year-old Lou Henson Jr., died in a 1992 car accident.

___

The Journal’s Randy Harrison contributed to this report. Former Associated Press reporter David Mercer also contributed to this report.

Lou Henson, middle of the front row, poses with the New Mexico State men’s basketball team he coached to the 1969-70 NCAA Tournament Final Four. (Journal photo)

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