True Orange and Blue
It was early April 1975 and Lou Henson was coming off his latest successful basketball season at New Mexico State University. The Aggies went 20–7 and qualified for another NCAA tournament appearance. Coach Henson had built a powerhouse at his alma mater, earning NCAA bids five times and reaching the 1970 Final Four.
No surprise that schools in the power conferences started to show interest in Henson, then in his early 40s. Two came after him hard: Oklahoma from the Big Eight and Illinois from the Big Ten.
Oklahoma seemed like the logical choice. It was a chance for Henson—a native of Okay, Okla.—to return home. Oklahoma’s athletic Director Wade Walker wanted Henson to meet with his school’s officials before he met with Illinois.
Henson’s wife Mary remembers this “standoff” well. “[Oklahoma’s athletic director] said, ‘You’re a native son here. You can visit your relatives any time [you like],’” she recalls. What to do? We know what Coach Henson decided; Mary says their joke is that she “made” Lou take the Illinois job.
“I didn’t demand anything,” Mary says. “But he knew I wanted to come to Illinois, of course.”
It was a battle of home states. Mary had grown up in Lanark, Ill. It was where she had first met Lou. While attending college at New Mexico State, he had spent three summers in the northwestern Illinois town, working at its Green Giant plant. “He was a prospect for me to recruit,” Mary says, laughing. But canning was not in his future. Basketball was.
Lou’s first head coaching job was at Las Cruces (N.M.) High School, where he won three state titles. His first college job was at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas; then, it was on to New Mexico State in 1966.
During his time with the Aggies, Coach Henson (who also was athletic director) got to know Wichita State’s athletic director, Cecil Coleman. Coleman eventually took the same job at Illinois. When he needed a new basketball skipper, he turned to Henson.
“When he was at New Mexico State, Lou said, ‘You know, I think the only job I would ever leave here for would be the University of Illinois,’” Mary recalls. “That was prophetic.”
Indeed it was. During the next 21 seasons, Coach Henson won a school-record 423 games, earned 12 NCAA tournament berths and led the 1989 Flyin’ Illini to the Final Four.
His success wasn’t immediate. It took a few seasons for Coach Henson to add enough talent to the roster and develop a winning culture. He also had to re-establish relationships with the state’s high-school coaches. He and his staff visited more than 400 high schools. The message: Illinois is the place for your players. In time, Illinois won the recruiting battle, developing ties to Chicago and beyond. “I knew he would work his tail off trying to get [the program] built, and I knew he had the right stuff,” Mary says.
In recognition of their longtime dedication to the school, Mary and Lou Henson were ideal choices to be named honorary alumni. Mary is thrilled with the recognition, and so was Lou—who passed away July 25 at age 88—Mary notes. “Lou knew about it before he passed. He was very, very proud of that.”
Henson’s charisma and leadership extended beyond the basketball court. Illinois Athletics Director Josh Whitman, BS ’01 BUS, JD ’08, speaking on behalf of the University at the time of Henson’s passing, noted that the coach was “an Illinois icon,” as well as a role model, friend and leader for many. “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,” Whitman said. “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.”
The memory of Coach Henson lives on at the U of I through the strong program he built and the many elements of his lasting legacy, such as the U of I’s student fan section, the Orange Krush; his prominent place in the U of I Athletics Hall of Fame; his inclusion in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame; and inside the State Farm Center, where his signature graces the floor of the home court named in his honor. And now, the Hensons fully join the University of Illinois family as its newest honorary alumni.
The University of Illinois Alumni Association presented its annual Alumni Awards as part of “virtual” Homecoming Week 2020, Nov. 29—Dec. 5. The UIAA honored the recipients of two Alumni Achievement Awards, the recipient of the Lou Liay Spirit Award, and recognized two Honorary Alumni. In addition, two new awards were presented, one recognizing an outstanding Young Alumni and the other championing noteworthy efforts to promote Diversity and Inclusion.
To see all recipients of the 2020 University of Illinois Alumni Awards, click here.