CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Illini Nation is mourning, celebrating and remembering legendary basketball coach Lou Henson after the Illinois athletics icon passed away on Saturday. He was buried during a private ceremony on Wednesday, all before the family made his passing public.
Henson is the winningest coach in Illinois history with 423 wins. The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame member had battled health issues, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since 2003. With 779 wins overall, he led Illinois and New Mexico State to Final Four appearances, one of only 15 coaches in history to accomplish the feat. That included the Flyin’ Illini in 1989.
“Every coach I have played for throughout my career of high school, and then college, pros kinda got on your nerves at some point, but with Coach Henson it was just special,” former Illini great Nick Anderson said during the Flyin’ Illini’s 30-year reunion in 2019. “He’s a great guy. His legacy, I just remember him being a special person. He’s a special person to me.”
“You know if you sit down with him for a few minutes you feel like you’ve known him forever and that wasn’t a talent, that’s just who he was,” Illinois all-time leading scorer Deon Thomas said on Wednesday. “Because I think he genuinely cared about people and when you do that, it’s just easier to draw people in which is what he did.”
Lou Henson’s legendary college basketball coaching career spanned 41 years at three programs. He spent four seasons at Hardin-Simmons (1963-66), where he integrated the basketball program before garnering a 67-36 record. He followed with a nine-year stint at New Mexico State (1967-75), leading the Aggies to the 1970 Final Four and totaling a record of 173-71. That success prepared him for his next stop at the University of Illinois.
“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.”
Henson was hired at Illinois on April 5, 1975. What followed was a legendary 21-year career in charge of the Orange and Blue (1976-96). He amassed a 423-224 record, highlighted by 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, a total of 15 postseason bids, and eleven 20-win seasons. Illinois basketball was one of the nation’s most dominant programs during Henson’s tenure, earning a top-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament seven straight years from 1984 through 1990.
Henson’s Illini won the 1984 Big Ten Championship and advanced to the Elite Eight. His most successful season came with the Flyin’ Illini, who won a then-school record 31 games and advanced to the 1989 NCAA Final Four. Illinois won 233 games during the 1980s, standing as the winningest Big Ten team of that decade.
“It is a sad day for the Illinois Basketball family and Illini Nation as we mourn the passing of Lou Henson, the greatest coach in our program’s proud history,” Illinois Basketball Coach Brad Underwood said in a statement. “His achievements are legendary, but what is immeasurable are the countless lives he impacted during his 21 years in Champaign and 41 years in coaching. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Mary and their family, and the hundreds of players who were fortunate enough to be led by such a tremendous man and coach. Rest in peace to the best to ever wear the orange jacket; we’ll miss you Coach.”
Henson still ranks fifth all-time among Big Ten coaches in both total wins (423) and conference wins (214).
Following his retirement from Illinois, Henson returned to the sidelines at New Mexico State, leading the Aggies for an additional seven-plus years (1998-05) and collecting a 116-81 record, highlighted by a 1999 Big West title and NCAA Tournament appearance.
In all, Henson won 779 games; ranking 24th on the all-time NCAA wins list, and 15th all-time among coaches with at least 10 years spent in Division I. He is one of 13 coaches in NCAA history to record 200-plus wins at two DI schools, totaling 423 at Illinois and 289 at New Mexico State to remain the winningest coach at both programs. He also stands as one of just 15 coaches to lead at least two different teams to the Final Four.
A native of Okay, Oklahoma, Henson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New Mexico State while earning three varsity basketball letters from 1953-55. He began his coaching career at Las Cruces High School, winning three straight New Mexico state titles from 1959-61.
Henson was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018, the New Mexico State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1978, the Hardin-Simmons Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997, and the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2019.
The playing floor at State Farm Center was officially dedicated as Lou Henson Court on Dec. 2, 2015, and his name also adorns the court at New Mexico State.