One of the Best Ever

by John Giannini (La Salle University)
One of the Best Ever

I was really excited when I first learned that was going to create an award to honor Coach Lou Henson. I felt it was long overdue that Coach Henson receives such an honor. When there is talk about the greatest coaches in recent history Coach Henson’s name is not often mentioned, but it should be included in any discussion.

It’s actually somewhat shocking that he isn’t talked about more, especially when you look at the numbers.

First let’s look at the man because the only thing more impressive then Lou Henson the coach is Lou Henson the person.

After spending time as an assistant coach at North Texas and Parkland, Coach Henson gave me an opportunity to join his staff at the University of Illinois. From 1987 through 1989 I learned so much about coaching, but I also learned some things about the man that most people do not know.

Regardless of the situation, if you ask coach Henson how he is doing you will always get a resounding, “I am great.” Many people take the approach that the glass is half full, but Coach Henson has always viewed the glass as being filled to the rim. In a society with so many self-absorbed individuals, Coach Henson is a throwback. He’s a selfless individual who always has things in perspective.

Whenever I am asked about Coach Henson, two things immediately come to mind. First and foremost is his total devotion to his family. In recent years the sports world has taken hits from the media for cases of extracurricular activities, but we don’t often hear the stories of the loyal family men.

I remember reading a nice story about Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury and how he takes his family everywhere with him. The same is true of Coach Henson. He and his wife, Mary, have a special marriage that all those that know him truly admire him for that. I have told my wife that I hope that I am in this profession long enough to follow that path. My children are still young, but I look forward to the day when they could travel with me on the road.

The second thing that comes to mind is his passion for the game. Following his brief retirement from Illinois, coach Henson spent time playing golf and visiting with family and friends, but there was a void. And there was a void in the coaching profession that could only be filled by his return.

Any one of his friends will tell you that you cannot get through lunch or dinner without coach Henson breaking out a pen and diagramming x’s and o’s on a cocktail napkin. Aside from family, nothing really interests him other than coaching. His attention to detail and his insistence on consistency have always been impressive.

In the time I spent at Illinois I gained a great appreciation for that approach. It did not matter if we were facing a non-conference opponent with a losing record or if we getting ready to play in the Final Four. The preparation was always the same. Even on those occasions when we lost, which was not often in those days, we were always had opportunities to win. It’s difficult for me to recall a time when we lost by ten or more points. His preparation has always been complete.

And it’s that approach that helped to produce an impressive coaching resume, which includes over 800 wins. Think about that for a moment.

Before he coached his first college game, Coach Henson won 145 games in six years at Las Cruces High School, which included three State Championships. He 1962 he took his first collegiate assignment at Hardin-Simmons, where he spent four seasons and turned around the fortunes of the program. He won 57 games over the final three seasons.

In 1996 he returned to Las Cruces, but this time to coach New Mexico State University. In his first season he took the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament. It was the first of five straight trips, which an appearance in Final Four in 1970. New Mexico State finished 27-3 that season.

Nine years after taking over at New Mexico State, He moved to Champagne, Illinois and took on the challenge of turning around another program. It took him a little time to get things going, but he would slowly build the University of Illinois into a national power, highlighted by a trip to the Final Four in 1989. The Illini finished 31-5 that season.

His career came full circle in 1997, when he came out of retirement for a second tour at New Mexico State. Not surprising, one year later the Aggies were back in the NCAA Tournament.

When he came out of retirement, I remember thinking that it was a testament to his will. The word toughness is often thrown around in our profession, but rarely does it apply in its’ truest sense. But that’s not the case with Coach Henson. In addition to being a great family man and a tremendous coach, most people would miss the fact that he is as tough as they come.

A few of years ago I dropped him a note letting him know that I thought he is a living role model for coaches and players when it comes to toughness. We can all learn a thing or two from Coach Henson and I am fortunate enough to have learned a great deal.

Without the opportunity that he gave me, I would not be where I am today so it will be great to see him back on the sidelines this weekend doing what I do.

Knowing all the great qualities of the man and his accomplishments as a coach, including over 800 wins, it’s amazing to me that he has not been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

I don’t think there is any doubt that he should be considered among the best to ever coach this game. But whether he gets that long deserved recognition of enshrinement or not, he will always tell you, “I am doing great.”