Lou Henson Celebrates Coaching Career At UI

The Fighting Illini basketball program honored its all-time winningest coach last night. Lou Henson and his wife Mary were on hand for the Ohio State game as a large banner with his name and photo was raised to the rafters to accompany the all-time best Illini players. It was fitting tribute to a much-beloved man who still bleeds Orange and Blue.

Lou Henson celebrated his 80th birthday with 15,000 of his closest friends plus a large assemblage of his former players at the Ohio State basketball game Tuesday night. A special halftime ceremony raised a banner in his honor as the all-time winningest coach in Illini basketball history. As always, he was humble about his achievement and quick to share the honor with his players.

"You get a lot of publicity when it's your birthday. It's special with my birthday and the honor. A lot of the players are back. It is great to be with them.

"The first thing that comes to mind is the tremendous players we've had throughout the years. We won with players. Coaching enters into it, but having the people on the floor that could do the job.

"In my 21 years here, we had a lot of good ones. They were very talented, but they were good people. You can't get along if you don't have good solid citizens out there, people who were dedicated and wanted to win."

Henson arrived at Illinois at the lowest point for the basketball program. In his 21 years coaching basketball in Champaign, he developed the program into one of the nation's best. He talks about his humble beginnings.

"When I first came here, we had 3000 people in the stands. No one was on the floor. That's when we organized the Orange Krush. We had seven guys in our living room. We passed out sixty shirts, and they didn't use all of them because they weren't used to going to the games.

"I'd wear an orange sport coat, and I'd look around and there'd be very little orange. We kept promoting to try to get more orange, and look where we are today. They're one of the best student organizations I've ever seen, what they do and how much interest and enthusiasm they bring about.

"And of course the Rebounders, we started that too. We really had nothing. Illinois had been to the NCAA once in the last 24-25 years, and teams weren't very good since Harry Combes. It wasn't a good situation, but we worked hard to do a lot of things.

"On recruiting, back then we could go out day and night. Now they can't do that. Our goal was to get into 400 high schools in the state of Illinois. We accomplished that.

"It took us a long time before we could get the in-state players. Then it started working out. We had the high school coaches helping out, and the players finally caught on. We did a pretty good job recruiting in the state. There's too many good players in the state not to get some of them.

"The Final Four team, every player was from the state. It was just a pleasure to coach those players. So it's a tribute to the players that my banner is going up there."

Not all his players liked him when they played for him, but most admit the lessons they learned from him have been important throughout their lives. "We were really tough on the players. We've always been tough on players, but you can't survive in a family situation without discipline. You can't teach unless you have good discipline. You can't teach somebody to play good defense unless you have good discipline.

"The players don't particularly like the coach some of the time, but that's not a problem as long as they respect me. If you do things right, they will."

Besides playing plenty of golf and bridge, Henson follows basketball. Once a coach, always a coach. He saw major changes during his tenure at Illinois, changes that have continued since. He has changed his philosophy on what a team needs to win.

"There were a lot of changes before I retired. The things that really revolutionized the game were the three point shot and the (shot) clock. That changed the game completely. At first, a three point shot was okay, we would take one now and then if a player could hit it. But now it's a big part of your game.

"I think to be a good ball club, number one you have to be a fast-breaking ball club. You've got to get down and get good shots, you get fouled, a lot of good things happen to you. It's hard to defend the fast break.

"Next thing, I used to think having a post man was the most important thing. It's not today. The guy that can create with the ball is the most dangerous. One player who can do that, and you have a good offense in itself. When he creates, he gets fouled or gets a layup, he can pitch off for three. So that is very important. And then post play is important.

"You can't beat a team if they're shooting threes. I was asked what you can do with a team that hits so many threes, and I said, 'Guard them.' You've got to guard them. If you take away the three point shot and eliminate a lot of the layups, you're gonna win the game. It's hard to win with the two point shot."

Fan behavior has also changed significantly since Henson coached at Illinois. Fans today are much less forgiving after losses and use every available means to complain. No coach today would ever list his home phone, but Henson did.

"We had a situation where anybody could call anytime they wanted to. In all the years, I had maybe one or two negative calls. It was different back then. Now it wouldn't be the case. Other than the last 2 or 3 years, our phone was listed. I finally had to restrict calls because people would call Mary just to talk about the game. She was spending all her time."

Current Illinois coach Bruce Weber is pleased to see Henson receive special recognition.

"I think it's great for Coach. He meant so much to the university, to the basketball program, to the community. He still feels part of it. He's back, he watches all our games, he calls. He just loves basketball. I'm glad he's being honored. It's something I talked about when we first did the jerseys. I thought it should have happened even then."

Weber also believes Henson should be in the Hall of Fame.

"It's hard for me to fathom why he's not in the Hall of Fame. Guys like him and Coach (Gene) Keady have done it at all levels, put their life and passion into it and won at all levels, and they don't get in. It's frustrating."

Henson assumes he will never qualify for that award. Does it bother him?

"No it doesn't. You look at the Hall of Fame, all the sports in there. There are so many tremendous coaches. There are a lot of coaches people maybe feel deserve to be (in it). No, I don't think it will happen. I don't think it should happen because there are great coaches who have been left out."

Henson maintains homes in Champaign and Las Cruses, New Mexico. The latter community reveres Henson for his two coaching stints there. He was away from Champaign for a few months this fall, and he allowed new UI athletic director Mike Thomas and his wife to live there while they sought a more permanent dwelling. He explains how that came about.

"When I found out Mike Thomas got the job, I talked to four people. I called one guy I know really well who was on his staff. He said he's a super athletic director. I talked to another guy I coached basketball with at New Mexico State at least three years, and he said he is an excellent guy.

"Tony Yates is there (Cincinnati), he knows Mike Thomas. He said Mike Thomas is a professional AD. He really knows what he's doing. So that made me feel good.

"And then I had a chance to talk to Jimmy Phillips. He's now at Northwestern, and we've known him for years. He raved about Mike. He said he's a great guy and knows what he is doing.

"I don't let just anybody stay in my home, but we decided to let him. We know when you're moving, you have to sell your home and find a place. We told him he could stay there while we were gone, three to three and a half months. So he did."

Henson has suffered major illnesses since retirement, including non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and viral encephalitis. He has endured a long, slow recovery process but is feeling good now.

"I am doing really well. The type of cancer I have you can't cure. It's in remission. I used to get it checked every six months, but now it's once a year. I'm in good shape."

He may walk a little slower these days, but his bright smile still warms the hearts of his admirers. He sat courtside to watch his Illini upset Ohio State Tuesday, and he was clapping along with the rest of the crowd. He may be retired, but his life is basketball. And Illini Nation is glad it is.

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