Lou Henson, the plain-spoken coach who took New Mexico State and Illinois to the Final Four during a 21-year career that included nearly 800 victories and a feud with fellow Big Ten coach Bob Knight, has died. He was 88.
Henson died Saturday at his home in Champaign and he was buried in a private service Wednesday, the Illinois athletic department said.
Henson left the game as the winningest coach at both Illinois and New Mexico State, and still ranks fifth all-time among Big Ten coaches in total wins (423) and conference wins (214). In 2015, he was named to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor his fans thought might never come.
Henson stressed preparation and discipline. But his best team, the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini that reached the NCAA semifinals, won with a fluid mix of athleticism and style.
Henson was gracious and gregarious, yet also serious. But he made headlines for his contentious dispute with Indiana’s Knight, while his comb-over hair style, the Lou-Do, served as a source of amusement.
And for years after Henson left the sidelines, he and his wife, Mary, were widely loved, unofficial ambassadors for both Illinois and New Mexico State and the towns where they’re located, Champaign, Illinois, and Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Illinois coach Brad Underwood called Henson’s death “a sad day for the Illinois basketball family and Illini nation.”
Henson, a native of Okay, Oklahoma, played college basketball at New Mexico State in the early 1950s. After coaching at Las Cruces High School — where he won three state titles — and Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, Henson took over at New Mexico State in 1966.
His Aggies made the NCAA Tournament in each of his first five seasons, including a Final Four appearance in 1970.
Wins at New Mexico State led Henson to Illinois in 1975, where he took over a program that had struggled since an NCAA scandal in the 1960s.
He wanted to build with players from Illinois, and particularly talent-rich Chicago, but warned that might be a slow process.
Henson had to wait for his fifth Illini team to win 20 games. Henson took Illinois to the NCAA Tournament in his sixth season, in 1980-81.
He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2003 and coached for a time from a wheelchair on the sidelines. But Henson left coaching for good the following season, finishing with a 779-412 record.
Henson dealt with health concerns related to his illness and its treatment for the rest of his life, but he also swam and golfed regularly. He routinely practiced chips in his Champaign front yard before dawn.
Henson also remained a presence on both Illinois’ and New Mexico State’s campuses.
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.