Okay native Lou Henson, the all-time wins leader as men’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois and New Mexico State, died Saturday at his home in Champaign, Ill., at 88, his family announced Wednesday.
Henson was buried Wednesday in a ceremony in Champaign, which was attended by family only. He had battled cancer over the past two decades after an initial diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2003.
Henson graduated from Okay in 1951, played at Connors State College in 1951 and 1952 before going on to his successful collegiate coaching career. After having his Connors jersey retired in 1994, he was the first person inducted into the Connors Athletic Hall of Fame, that being in 2012, and the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. He most recently was inducted to the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, in 2019.
“The Cowboy family lost a legend today, a man inducted into numerous hall of fames and having two courts named after him at both New Mexico State and Illinois,” said Connors athletic director and men’s basketball coach Bill Muse.
“He always wanted to give you as much time as he could. He and his wife Mary have been very supportive of our program throughout the years. He fought a great fight to the end. A really quality life.”
Charlie McMahan, who was once boys basketball coach and athletic director at Okay and now is superintendent at Porter, had one brief phone encounter with Henson.
“We were we had a very short conversation one time trying to get him one year to come to a sports banquet. There was a last minute something and he couldn’t make it,” McMahan said.
“I remember how humble it seemed he was, how it didn’t feel like he was sitting here talking to some peon coach. At the same time, I’m sitting on the phone ‘thinking hey, I’m really talking to this guy,’” said McMahan.
Henson’s coaching career began at Las Cruces (New Mexico) High School in 1957 and spanned 21 years at Illinois. He retired in 2005, 21 wins shy of becoming only the fifth coach in Division I history to win 800 games. Henson retired with a career record of 779-413, the sixth-winningest in Division I history at the time.
His initial job coaching in the college ranks in 1962 at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas. As a condition of taking the Hardin-Simmons job, Henson insisted that the team (and thus the school) be racially integrated, a condition to which the university agreed. He was 67-36 in four seasons there with two 20-win campaigns.
During a 41-year career, Henson registered 423 wins at Illinois and 289 at New Mexico State, where he coached from 1966 to 1975 and again from 1997 to 2005. He led both schools to the Final Four — the Aggies in 1970 and the Illini in 1989.
“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. “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.”
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?” former NBA player Reggie Theus, who succeeded Henson at New Mexico State and considered him a mentor, once said. “Because he’s genuine. There’s no ego there.”
Henson is survived by his wife, Mary, and daughters Lisa, Lori and Leigh Anne. A son, 35-year-old Lou Henson Jr., died in a 1992 car accident.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.