TULSA, Okla. – Today, on a court in the 19,000-seat BOK Center arena, the head coaching crash course of Paul Weir continues.
The 37-year-old rookie head coach of the 14th-seeded New Mexico State Aggies will run his first open practice at an NCAA Tournament, then hit the stage to hold his first press conference with national media ahead of Friday’s East Region opening-round game against the No. 3 Baylor Bears.
It was some 48 miles southeast of the BOK Center, in the small town of Okay, Okla., where Lou Henson, the only other first-year NMSU coach to lead the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament (in 1967), began his basketball journey.
“There were six boys in my (high school) graduating class,” said Henson on Wednesday from his Las Cruces home. “Would you believe that four of them, at a little old school like that, went on to get Ph.D.s and our (team) manager went on to become a medical doctor? How many other schools that size can say that?
“Of course I wasn’t one of those guys.”
No, Henson wasn’t one of those guys. All the student of the game of basketball went on to accomplish was to coach at Las Cruces High, play and coach at NMSU, notch 779 career Division I coaching victories, take two teams – NMSU and Illinois – to a Final Four, set career coaching records at both schools, have both universities name their courts after him, and get inducted to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
It’s no wonder, then, that Weir’s first move last April as head coach of the Aggies was to seek the help of Henson, naming him a special adviser the day he was hired.
And it was far more than just lip service to a program legend.
“He said, ‘I’d like you to help me,'” the 85-year-old Henson recalled Weir saying as he pursued the NMSU job last spring after nine-year head coach Marvin Menzies moved on to coach at UNLV. “I said, sure, he could use my name. He said, ‘No. I’d like you to help me. I’ve never been a head coach, and I could use some help.'”
The two not only talked plenty leading into the season, but Henson frequently attended practices and seemed himself somewhat re-energized to have someone genuinely leaning on him for guidance.
“A lot of people wouldn’t do it,” Henson said of Weir seeing his help. “And if you’ve never been a head coach, there’s just certain things you don’t know are coming. I’ve been through all of it. So, I’m glad he asked.”
Health prevented Henson, who continues his battle with cancer, to attend many practices come winter and he is unable to travel this week to his home state, where he says he still has plenty of relatives, to watch the Aggies play.
But Weir, who has led the Aggies to a 28-5 record and a Western Athletic Conference tournament victory, says there is no questioning the impact Henson has had on him and the program this season.
“I’m one of the luckiest coaches ever, considering I’m able to ask questions and take criticism from one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Weir said. “Lou was instrumental in helping form our early-season plan and habits, and I’ll forever be grateful for his considerable time and energies at such a critical point of my career.”
It seems Henson, who publicly endorsed Weir for the job last spring, genuinely enjoyed once again being such an integral part of the program he coached two separate times.
“Basketball’s been my life,” Henson said. “So, I enjoyed being with Paul and talking basketball. And he was interested in what I had to say, and I think I helped him some.”
As for what he sees in Weir, Henson said he doesn’t regret for a second endorsing him for the job. He says he is still a student of the game himself, so he appreciates seeing young coaches willing to learn what they don’t already know.
But being a student of the game is only part of the equation.
“I’ve watched him, and he’s a good fundamental coach and I think he does a good job of teaching,” Henson said of Weir. “He’s smart. He picks up things. And I think he’ll only continue to get better. … He really is a tremendous teacher of the game. And he deserves a lot of credit for what they have done this season.”
WATCH PARTIES: Boosters and alumni are convening Friday at The Joint @ WisePies, Jefferson/I-25; and Bosque Brewing Co., in Nob Hill, both of which will open at 10:30 for the Aggies’ 10:40 a.m. game.