Fighting Illini Basketball Coach’s Honor Roll
Lou Henson was respected for his coaching acumen and beloved for his character and personality.
From 1975-1996, Henson went 423-224 at Illinois. He led the 1989 Flyin’ Illini to the Final Four, losing a heartbreaking game to eventual-champion Michigan in the semifinals at Seattle.
Inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, he served as a head coach at Hardin-Simmons, New Mexico State (two stints) and at Illinois, achieving a record of 779-412.
Henson’s 779 victories rank 11th all-time in college basketball. Of the Top 10, only Indiana’s Bob Knight spent the bulk of his career in the Big Ten.
The two had a long-standing rivalry, including the famous “classic bully” confrontation after an Illinois-Indiana game at Champaign’s Assembly Hall (now State Farm Center). But Knight praised Henson’s coaching ability.
During his tenure at Illinois, Henson led the team to 15 postseason appearances, including 12 NCAA tournaments.
Henson also coached a string of future NBA first-round draft picks at New Mexico State and Illinois.
When Illinois went looking for Bill Self’s replacement, it wanted a coach who didn’t view the school as a steppingstone to the NBA or another college job. It found that coach, interestingly enough, in the lower half of the state.
The longtime Purdue assistant under Head Coach Gene Keady, Bruce Weber built a Missouri Valley powerhouse at Southern Illinois. His last two SIU teams won conference titles and qualified for the NCAA tournament. In 2002, the Salukis reached the Sweet 16. With Head, Brown, Williams, Powell and Augustine all averaging in double figures, Weber’s 2003-04 team became the first to win an outright Big Ten title since 1952. Weber’s first season ended with a close loss to Duke in the regional semifinals.
The Illini finish ranked in the Top 15 and set up for a magical run in 2004-05. The team had a chance to finish the regular season 30-0. Ohio State ended that dream with a late basket in Columbus.
But the loss didn’t destroy Illini confidence. If anything, it motivated the players and Weber to make sure it didn’t happen again. Given an almost perfect travel map from Urbana-Champaign to the Final Four, the Illini advanced from Indianapolis to Rosemont to St. Louis. No team has ever had a shorter trip distance-wise than the Illini.
And few teams have been as dominant. Four of the first five games were double-digit wins by Weber’s team. To his credit, Weber never panicked. Perhaps, having a talented, veteran team made it easier. When looking back at the game, each Weber decision seems inspired.
Weber’s remaining seven years weren’t as much fun. He set a high bar that his teams weren’t able to clear again. But he reached the NCAA tournament four more times before losing his job. He won 210 games at Illinois. Weber, who turns 60 next October, enters his fifth season in charge at Kansas State. His first two teams in Manhattan qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Oh, what might have been. If only Matt Doherty hadn’t failed so miserably as North Carolina’s head coach. If only the Tar Heels hadn’t turned to Roy Williams as their next leader. And, if only the Jayhawks didn’t set their sights on Illinois Head Coach Bill Self.
In three seasons at Illinois, the former Oklahoma State guard was brilliant. His team went to the NCAA tournament all three years, winning six March Madness games.
Self, who coached from 2001-03, won .765 percent of his games at Illinois, by far the best record of anyone who lasted more than a year.
And you can’t forget what Self left in Urbana-Champaign when he moved to Lawrence. The pieces were in place for an historic run. A big part of the reason Self considered turning down his dream job was to take a shot at the NCAA title with Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine, ’06 ahs. Illinois would never get a whiff of the title game without Self’s recruiting work.
What would have happened if Illinois Athletics Director Ron Guenther, ’67 ahs, ms ’68 ahs, had been able to keep Self? We will never know for sure. But folks in Illinois have watched Self dominate the Big 12, winning 12 consecutive conference championships. And he won a national title with the Jayhawks in 2008.
Just imagine if Self had stayed in place at Illinois and compiled the 385-83 record he has at Kansas. He may not have passed Henson in popularity, but it would have made for a nice discussion.