Former Illini Players & Basketball Figures Remember Lou Henson

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- While it’s well documented that former Illinois guard Stephen Bardo has admitted to having a love-hate relationship with his head coach in college, Lou Henson will always be his head coach and mentor.

“For me, Lou Henson’s voice got louder the longer I left school,” Bardo said. “The more of an adult I became, the older my kids became, I would hear Coach Henson’s voice more. I would impart the lessons I learned from him onto my children. He had an enormous impact on my life.”

Bardo was the lead guard on easily the most famous Illinois team coached by Henson, the 1988-89 “Flyin’ Illini”, which would 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.

“Our relationship didn’t blossom until I got out of college and finally understood how difficult it is to be a big-time coach at a Big Ten institution,” Bardo said.

Bardo was one of several former Illini athletes, former players under Henson and college basketball figures to pay respect Wednesday to a coach who was elected to the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

As a tribute to Henson, Illinois has hung an orange jacket, which he was famous for first wearing after buying his first pair at Delbert’s Clothing Store in Arthur, Ill., outside the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill., Wednesday afternoon.

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Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman on Lou Henson: "We have lost an Illini icon. We have lost a role model, a friend, and a leader. We have lost our coach."

"Our Orange and Blue hearts are heavy,” Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said in a 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."

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Illinois head coach Brad Underwood addressed the program's NCAA Tournament expectations Wednesday at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood on Lou Henson: "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."Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports

“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 men’s basketball head 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."

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“So sad to hear that the best coach I ever had has moved on,” former Illinois wing Eddie Johnson said in a tweet. “Lou Henson was royalty to me. He took me and shaped me and sent me on my way, but was always available to reset me when I was off. He and his wife Mary took their first vacation since he had become a coach to attend my wedding I loved that man and he will never be forgotten. He is the best ever at Illinois.”

Johnson’s famous game-winning shot at Assembly Hall in Champaign on Jan. 11, 1979 to defeat then-No. 1 and eventual national champion Michigan State (then led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson) was a moment that jump started the legendary tenure of Henson at Illinois.

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Jimmy Collins, New Mexico State head coach Lou Henson and Sam Lacey pose for a photo during the 1969-1970 season.Nathan J Fish/Las Crucus (N.M.) Sun-News

“I think the first thing Coach Henson taught me was discipline,” Former player and assistant coach Jimmy Collins said to the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette. “The discipline you need to exhibit to really, really be successful, not only in basketball, but in life. There has to be discipline. The other thing he taught me was focus. Think about whatever move you are going to make and then make the move. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out, sometimes it does, but nine times out of 10 it will work out.”

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Lou Henson got former walk-on guard Ed Manske a paid teaching assistant job in the English department at the University of Illinois so Manske could pay for three years of law school at the U of I.

Ed Manske, a former walk-on guard who earned a letter while on the 1988-89 "Flyin' Illini" squad, remembered how Henson got him a paid teaching assistant job in the English department at the University of Illinois so Manske could pay for three years of law school at the U of I after his eligibility was over. 

"I have a different perspective because I started out as a walk-on," Manske said. (Henson) knew who I was, cared about me and put me on scholarship that last year when he didn't have to do that. He came to me after I graduated and knew I was going to law school at U of I. He asked how I was going to pay for that and I told him I'd work on the side when I could and take loans. He suggested I become a teaching assistant, set up the interview with the department of English and got me that teaching assistantship that paid for for three full years of law school. I never hit double digits (in scoring) for him as a player but he did that for me. I'll forever be grateful for that."

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George Montgomery, who averaged 7.2 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game in 114 career games (with 61 career starts) at Illinois, spoke to Henson on FaceTime just a couple weeks before his death. 

George Montgomery, who averaged 7.2 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game in 114 career games (with 61 career starts) and was a captain on the 1984-85 Illini team that finished with a No. 12 Associated Press poll ranking, remembered one of Henson's favorite catchphrases as a coach that he would use instead of verbally abusing a player with profanity.

"During a practice he said something to one of the players and I thought he cursed him out," Montgomery said. "He said 'son, you ain't worth the salt in your bread' and I was like 'whoa, did he just curse that cat out or what?' and to me he'd say 'Now George, would we ever let you do that as a freshman?'. I talked with (Henson) on FaceTime about two weeks ago and he said 'George, you were the best defensive center that I've ever coached.'" 

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Larry Lubin was one of Lou Henson's first recruits to Illinois and he would captain the 1978-79 Illini squad that finished 19-11.

Larry Lubin, who was one of Henson's first recruits at Illinois and captained the 1978-79 Illini squad that finished 19-11, talked about what a younger version of Henson was like to play for. 

"He was tough, man and I always say this about Coach Henson but outside of basketball and you can argue whether he made you truly a better ball player but Coach Henson made us a man. He made us tough. He made us responsible. I'm grateful simple for just that. He certainly turned the program around from what it was before and one thing I'll always remember, he went through my whole time at Illinois and never uttered a cuss word. Not one. I'm lucky if I get through a sentence without one. But he made his point, that's for sure." 

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Marcus Liberty, who averaged 12.6 points per game in his two-year Illini career under Henson from 1988-90, talked about being recruited and playing for Henson at Illinois after being named a McDonald's All-American in 1987 along with being the Parade Magazine National High School Player of the Year. 

"He never treated me like I was one of those kind of guys. And I owe a lot to him because that's a lot of pressure being the No. 1 ranked high school guy coming in from Chicago and wanting to play immediately," Liberty said. "Coach Henson realized that if I don't put a lot of pressure on this young man, he'll be fine. I used to get mad because I would think I was that (No. 1 ranked player) dude and you're not treating me like that but now I understand why. He didn't want that added pressure on me. He protected me from that." 

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Bruce Douglas, a former Big Ten Conference Player of the Year, on Lou Henson: "Coach was one of those people who was very humble but very direct. Coach didn't have a lot of fluff. He said the stuff."

Bruce Douglas was voted an Illini All-Century Team member after he finished his playing career under Henson as the Big Ten's all-time leader in assists (765) and steals (324) while also being named the Big Ten Co-Player of the Year in 1984 after helping the Illini to a share of the league title. Douglas, who finished his Illini career with 1,261 points, talked about 

"I just saw Coach Henson maybe a month ago and got a chance to go see him and Mary. First of all, Coach Henson came along in my life at a time where we're all still being molded and shaped," Douglas said. "Coach was one of those people who was very humble but very direct. Coach didn't have a lot of fluff. He said the stuff. We might have come in thinking we were All-Americans and all-world players but he would put you on that level, even ground. You were going to have to work hard and earn it. He taught preparation. He taught defense but he was also a man with character. If he said he was going to do something, you could count on him doing it. It was a great atmosphere. Coach could be funny at times. He was somebody who really cared about us. You don't find that out, how much people really care, until later in life. He was concerned enough about us to tell us that other people wouldn't tell us at a time when we wouldn't take it for everybody."

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Ryan Baker, a weekday morning news anchor at WBBM-TV/CBS 2 in Chicago, was a student manager at Illinois under Henson from 1988-91. 

Ryan Baker, a weekday morning news anchor at WBBM-TV/CBS 2 in Chicago, talked about his experiences as a student manager from 1988-91 that included the 1988-89 "Flyin’ Illini" squad. 

"Coach Henson has such much to celebrate. It's interesting that whoever you talk to whether it's longtime NBA veterans like Eddie Johnson, walk-ons like Eddie Manske, managers like myself and Andrew Haring and everybody's story is pretty much the same," Baker said. "Because the one word you think of with Coach Henson is consistent. All of those lessons you say now as a father and husband were invaluable. I know he's up in heaven coaching now because he can't sit still."

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T.J. Wheeler played four years for Henson at Illinois from 1990-94. Wheeler ended his career with 883 points and also ranks fourth on Illinois' all-time free throw percentage list (83.7 percent). 

T.J. Wheeler, who played four years from Henson at Illinois from 1990-94 and ended with 883 points, shared the story of Henson's reaction to a car accident during his senior season (1993-94) involving his Wheeler's mother and sister that left his mother in a local hospital for a month. 

"Every morning at 10 a.m., Coach Henson would call and talk to my mother for between five and 30 minutes," Wheeler said. "He did that every single day for four weeks. I'll never forget that. It shows how close he had everybody with their families. I'm very fortunate. There's not a lot of 6-foot-4 cats out of Buckner, Illinois that are going to get the opportunity to play for a Hall of Fame coach. I was that fortunate."

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