CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Lou Henson, the winningest basketball coach in University of Illinois history, has died at the age of 88.
Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate was the first to report this news Wednesday morning.
"Our Orange and Blue hearts are heavy," Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said in a university statement. "We have lost an Illini icon. We have lost a role model, a friend, and a leader. We have lost our coach. Coach Henson may be gone, but the memories he provided us, and the legacy he created, will last forever. He was responsible for almost 800 wins in the record book and countless Fighting Illini moments frozen in time, but 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. 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. I so enjoyed my time with Coach these last five years, and I will miss him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mary, Lisa, Lori, Leigh Anne, and the entire Henson family. Their family will always be part of ours."
Henson, who was elected to the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015 and has the playing court named in his honor at State Farm Center, accumulated 423 of his 779 career victories at Illinois. He is currently 33rd all-time in college basketball history in wins and holds the all-time coaching wins mark at both Illinois and New Mexico State.
Henson is one of two former coaches to have two playing courts named in their honor with the other being former UCLA head coach John Wooden.
Henson reportedly died Saturday in the same Champaign home his family bought when he took the job at Illinois in 1975 and was buried in a private ceremony Wednesday morning. He is most famous for being the Illini head coach who rejuvenated the basketball program in Champaign after being hired in 1975 and was the coach for the “Flying’ Illini” team in 1988-89 that reach the school's first-ever No. 1 ranking during the regular season and advanced to the program’s first Final Four in 37 years before losing to Michigan in the national semifinal in Seattle.
"It is a sad day for the Illinois Basketball family and Illini Nation as we mourn the passing of Lou Henson, the greatest coach in our program's proud history," Illinois head basketball coach Brad Underwood said in a statement. "His achievements are legendary, but what is immeasurable are the countless lives he impacted during his 21 years in Champaign and 41 years in coaching. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Mary and their family, and the hundreds of players who were fortunate enough to be led by such a tremendous man and coach. Rest in peace to the best to ever wear the orange jacket; we'll miss you Coach."
Before Henson’s arrival, Illinois had only five NCAA tournament appearances (1942, 1949, 1951, 1952 and 1963) and ended a 18-year drought of missing March Madness by qualifying for the 1981 NCAA tournament. From 1983-1994, Illinois only missed the NCAA tournament two times under Henson and was at least a five seed or higher in the tournament seven straight years from 1984-90.
“When I came in, I really had concerns about the job because they had been to the NCAA tournament one time in 24 years,” Henson said to the Champaign News-Gazette. “We had to start from scratch.”
Over several years, Henson became a mainstay figure among Big Ten Conference coaches and one of the few men who would stand up to the tactics of Indiana head coach Bob Knight. Following a 12-point loss to Indiana in 1991, a profanity-laced shouting match by Knight and toward Henson erupted outside the locker rooms after the game after Knight skipped the traditional postgame handshake to instead walk off the court laughing and waving to the Illinois crowd with a few seconds left.
''What do you expect out of Knight?'' said Henson, who was angered a year ago when Knight referred to then-NCAA investigation into the Illini program that would eventually result in the program being put on probation. ''He's a classic bully. I was in the (Indiana) locker room, he jumped on me and I wanted him to come outside. He intimidates the Big 10 office; he tries to intimidate everybody. His entire life is based on intimidation, but the big bully won't intimidate me.''
Henson is survived by his wife Mary along with daughters Lori, Leigh Anne and Lisa. Henson and his wife became very involved with the Cunningham Children's Home in Champaign, and the Boys and Girls Club in Las Cruces. A street is named after Henson in Champaign, and a highway in New Mexico also bears his name.
Henson has helped shape several prominent people in athletics during his coaching tenure including current Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, who worked with Henson at Illinois as a manager and student assistant coach with the Illini before graduating in 1990.
Henson, who is credited with forming the “Orange Krush” student fan section that still exists and is now a student-run non-profit organization, was picked as the first member of the second ever Hall of Fame Class at Illinois in June 2017.
Henson had two coaching tenures at his alma mater New Mexico State (1966-75 and 1997-00) where he took the Aggies to the Final Four in 1970 led by guard Jimmy Collins, who would eventually be his lead assistant with the Illini from 1983 to 1996 and head coach at Illinois-Chicago from 1996-2010. In his second tenure with NMSU, Henson would then take the program back to the NCAA tournament 28 years after that Final Four run in 1998.
In his time at Illinois, Henson was able to recruit and coach several players who were drafted into the NBA and coached the school’s all-time leading scorer Deon Thomas, who is now the Illini’s radio color analyst.
“My love for Coach Henson grew as my maturity level grew,” Thomas told the News-Gazette. “As a coach, I would often call Coach Henson and talk to him about various situations in dealing with players and referees. He was always right there to opine on the things I had questions about.”