The tributes to the legendary coach poured in after Henson died July 25 in Illinois at the age of 88 after a 17-year battle with cancer. Those who played for, and coached with, Henson say he was a truly decent man and a great coach. Lesser known, he was also a quiet force for social change long before it was in vogue.
Between coaching Las Cruces High School to three state titles in four years and becoming the winningest coach at both New Mexico State University and the University of Illinois, Henson made his mark on sports integration. As Henson’s former assistant coach Rus Bradburd recalls in a sports story published in The Sunday Journal on Aug. 2, Henson’s first collegiate job was at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. Henson only accepted the head coaching job after school officials agreed to desegregate the all-white team and allow Joe Lopez as Henson’s assistant. That was 1962.
New Mexico State University athletic director Mario Moccia says Henson, who played college basketball at New Mexico State in the early 1950s, was responsible for the most memorable event in NMSU athletic history – the basketball team’s trip to the Final Four 50 years ago. Unfortunately for the Aggies, they faced John Wooden’s dynastic UCLA in the semifinals, which defeated NMSU before beating Jacksonville in the championship game. NMSU All-American Jimmy Collins, part of that 1969-70 squad, says Henson was more than a coach. “Lou Henson walked into my life, and when the ball stopped bouncing he was still there. He will be greatly missed by all of us who cared so deeply for him.”
Henson returned to the college basketball mountaintop in 1989 as coach of Illinois, but the Fighting Illini fell to Big Ten rival Michigan in the semifinals of the Final Four.
After 21 years at the University of Illinois, where he became nationally known for his “Lou Do” comb-over and rivalry with Knight, whom Henson called “a classic bully,” Henson came out of retirement for his second coaching stint at NMSU. He coached the 1997-98 Aggies for just $1 because his alma mater was in such dire financial shape. He continued to lead the Aggies until January 2005 when he said he was “taking myself out of the game” because of his health. Henson coached his last game on Feb. 7, 2014, in Santa Fe when he led the New Mexico House of Representatives in a charity game vs. the state Senate. Henson’s “Aggies” lost 26-24, but the annual Hoops 4 Hope game raised almost $22,000 for the University of New Mexico Cancer Center.
The Okay, Oklahoma, native was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, having amassed 289 victories at NMSU and 423 at Illinois, both school records. He became a member of the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and deserves to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame considering the lasting positive effect he had on players, coaches, fans and the game of college basketball.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.