Lou Henson, Legendary NM State Coach, Passes at 88

Lou Henson was a giant of a coach.
A coaching giant has fallen as former New Mexico State and Illinois Head Coach Lou Henson passed away on Wednesday morning. Courtesy NM State Athletics.

Coaching legend, Lou Henson, passed away July 25, 2020 at home in Champaign, Illinois. Henson is one of the few coaches in college basketball history to be the winningest coach at two separate Division I institutions, New Mexico State and Illinois. 

Born in Oklahoma, Henson attended what was then called New Mexico A&M (later New Mexico State University) in the 1950s. After graduating, he briefly coached at Las Cruces High School before taking a position at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, TX. 

After four years in Abilene, Henson took over as head coach at New Mexico State University in 1966. The nine year stretch that followed is arguably still the greatest era of Aggie basketball, highlighted by NM State’s appearance in the 1970 Final Four. Between 1966 and 1975, the Aggies enjoyed multiple appearances in the AP Top 25 and six NCAA Tournament appearances. The 1970 NCAA Tournament saw New Mexico State take down Rice, Kansas State, and Drake before falling to eventual champion UCLA in the Final Four. The famed Final Four team included three future NBA players, Sam Lacey, Jimmy Collins, and Charlie Criss. 

Henson left New Mexico State in 1975 to take the head coaching job at Illinois. There, he continued his winning ways. Over 21 years, Henson put together a remarkable 423-224 record. In 1989, another trip to the Final Four took place while at Illinois. The Illini made the NCAA Tournament twelve times, eight consecutively, with Henson at the helm. 

Return to Where It All Began

In an interesting twist for a head coach, Henson returned to his alma mater after one year of retirement. Taking only $1 a month, Henson coached the Aggies for eight more years. During his second stint at NM State, Henson put together another 135 wins to add to his 173 victories between 1966 and 1975. 

In 41 years as a head coach, Henson went 779-412, placing him 33rd on the list of all-time winning coaches. More impressive about Henson’s coaching ability, is the success at New Mexico State and Illinois. The basketball courts at both New Mexico State and Illinois bear his name and he remains the most successful basketball coach at both institutions. The Lou Henson Award annually goes to the nation’s top mid-major basketball player. In 2015, Henson became a member of National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. 

After the announcement of his passing, figures across college basketball expressed their grief and respect for the great Lou Henson. Multitudes of fans from two passionate fan bases also expressed their condolences to the Henson family. Some of these tributes can be found in this report by Justin Martinez of the Las Cruces Sun News.

Lou Henson’s mark on college basketball will live on for generations to come.

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