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Former Illinois Coach Lou Henson Passes Away at Age 88

Lou Henson, the long-time Illinois coach, had many run-ins with Bob Knight during the 20-plus seasons they coached against each other in the Big Ten, none bigger than a postgame shouting match in 1991.

Longtime former Illinois basketball Lou Henson, who had many fiery battles on and off the court with Bob Knight during their tenures together in the Big Ten, passed away last weekend and was buried Wednesday in a private family-only ceremony in Champaign, Ill.

He was 88 years old.

Long known for his bright orange jackets, Henson coached at Illinois from 1975 through 1996, winning 423 games with the Fighting Illini. It took him six seasons to reach the NCAA Tournament, but after going for the first time in 1981, he went 12 times in 15 years before resigning in 1996. He coached at Hardin-Simmons and had  two stints at New Mexico State, winning 779 games overall, good for 33rd all-time in career wins.

Henson had great teams at Illinois during the 1980s, a golden era for Big Ten basketball, but he often failed to make runs in the NCAAS. He reached the Sweet 16 only four times, made the Elite Eight twice and made only one Final Four, in 1989 when the Illini lost to Michigan in the national final. 

Henson was a trailblazer in many ways. When he took his first head coaching job at Hardin-Simmons in small-town Texas in 1961, he accepted the position only on the promise that they would start to allow African-American athletes for the first time. He won 20 games twice there, before getting hired – for the first time — at New Mexico State.

He turned New Mexico State around quickly — the previous coach, Jim McGregor, left on a road trip and never returned — and Henson made a name for himself by beating defending national champion and neighboring school Texas Western twice in his first year. The 25-mile highway from Las Cruces to El Paso has since been named after Henson. He reached the Final Four there in 1970.

He was hired at Illinois in 1975 and inherited a mess. It took him six years before posting a winning record in the Big Ten with a team led by Derek Harper. He won only one Big Ten title (1984), but finished third or better eight times. Recruiting violations and NCAA restrictions hurt him in the end, and he left in 1996. 

He went back to New Mexico State to help out temporarily, but then wound up staying nearly eight years before health issues ended his coaching career. The basketball courts at Illinois and New Mexico State are both named after him.

Henson coached against Bob Knight and Indiana a whopping 44 times during his tenure at Illinois, winning just 15 times and losing 29. (Knight beat him at Texas Tech too, after Henson had returned to New Mexico State.)

Knight loved beating Henson and Illinois, often complaining — on the record and off — that the Illinois program constantly violated NCAA rules.

Knight complained to the NCAA once in the recruiting of Lowell Hamilton, but nothing even happened with the NCAA. Later, Iowa turned them in on the recruiting of Deon Thomas. Indiana and Illinois fought for the same recruits often, and it was usually pretty ugly,

The worst of it happened late in the 1991 season when Knight and Henson got into a profanity-laced shouting match — Henson didn't swear, so you can imagine it was one-sided — but lots of people saw it. 

Knight also struck the match in the incident. The Hoosiers were going to win the game, so with seven seconds left, Knight walked off the court, waving to the Illinois crowd with a big smile on his face. He skipped the post-game handshake with Henson.

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Henson was livid and confronted Knight. He chased him down inside the Indiana locker room, and then the two went outside, where they had words. Then Henson blistered Knight in his postgame news conference.

 "What do you expect out of Knight? He`s a classic bully,'' Henson said. "I was in the (Indiana) locker room, he jumped on me and I wanted him to come outside. He intimidates the Big Ten office; he tries to intimidate everybody. His entire life is based on intimidation, but the big bully won`t intimidate me."

Knight did one better in the postgame, belittling Henson for always whining about other schools recruiting kids from the state of Illinois.

After the win, which earned Indiana a share of the Big Ten title, Knight never mentioned the game  other than calling it "the best win Indiana has had in my 20 years at the school. We almost came over here, I thought, against insurmountable odds,''

Knight took shots at Henson whenever he could, and used this moment to wave an Illinois press release touted almost all of their starters for Big Ten honors.

''I don't understand how that many good players lost the game,'' Knight said. 'The last time we had three players like that was in 1975 (Knight`s first NCAA championship team). I'm not sure anybody has had as many good players as Illinois thinks they've had.

''Henson is an outstanding coach. With those players, I`m not sure what the problem would be that would only allow them to win whatever number of conference games they've won (11).''

Knight then grabbed a notepad from Indiana assistant sports information director Kit Klingelhoffer and apologizing for not having proper graphics.

''I've come into some information in the last few days,'' Knight said, drawing a map of Illinois. ''I know Illinois` situation with the NCAA, but I think something has happened. I really think there`s an international conspiracy to get Illinois. 

''You've got a really good coach in a situation with a great feeder system in Illinois. You've got a couple of high schools in Chicago with really good players. You've got good fans, great support, so something's wrong.''

Knight then got up and left, never answering any questions. 

Deon Thomas, who played for Henson from 1990 to 1994, appreciated all that Henson did for him, and a lot of that appreciation came after his playing days were over.

“When I played for Coach Henson, I did not understand how much he meant to me and the lessons he was trying to give or how much he cared about his players,” said Thomas, who's now a part of Illinois' radio team.  “That’s when you really start to see a lot of the lessons and start to appreciate a lot of what Coach Henson was trying to instill in you as a player and as a man.

  • OBITUARY: Former Illinois coach Lou Henson passes away; was school's all-time winningest basketball coach. CLICK HERE