CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – 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.
“I just think that Lou is probably the most underrated coach in college basketball,” former Illinois and pro player Stephen Bardo said.
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.
“Who doesn’t love Lou? Seriously — who doesn’t love him?” said former NBA player Reggie Theus, who succeeded Henson at New Mexico State and considered him a mentor. “Because he’s genuine. There’s no ego there.”