NMSU Coaching Legend Lou Henson Leaves a Lasting Legacy
This morning we learned that one of the all-time Aggie greats is now coaching in heaven. Lou Henson, who led NMSU to the 1970 Final Four and twenty years later returned to guide the Aggies men's basketball team, died Saturday at the age of 88. His family kept the news quiet until today, when he was buried at Roselawn Cemetery in a private ceremony. Henson was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2003, but he stayed active on and off the court until the end.
Lou Henson was born in Okay Oklahoma on January 10th, 1932. Okay is 163 miles from Enid, Oklahoma which is where Don Haskins was born nearly two years earlier. While Haskins played his college basketball at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), Henson transferred from junior college to New Mexico A&M (now New Mexico State). After graduating in 1955 and a year later obtaining his graduate degree, Henson started coaching basketball at Las Cruces Hugh. He won three straight state titles from 1959 through 1961 and then moved up to college coaching at Hardin Simmons before returning to Las Cruces to coach the Aggies in 1966. Many UTEP and New Mexico State fans will remember the long time coaching rivalry between Henson and Haskins during the late 60s and early 70s. By the time he left for Illinois in 1975, Henson had taken NMSU to six NCAA Tournaments.
While in Champaign, Henson transformed the Fighting Illini into a Big 10 powerhouse. During his 21 seasons at Illinois, his teams won 423 games and lost just 224 times. His 1988-89 team was memorable for winning 31 games and advancing to the Final Four. He left the school as their all-time winningest head basketball coach. In 1997, Henson returned to NMSU to take over the Aggies program from Neil McCarthy, who was fired before the start of the season. Although he did not want to take a salary, he ended up coaching the Aggies for $1 per month for that first season. NMSU won the Big West regular season and tournament championship in 1999 and Coach Henson stayed with the program until midway through the 2004-05 season. By the time he stepped down due to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he was the Aggies all-time winningest coach. NMSU renamed their court after him in 2002. In 41 years of college coaching, he retired with a record of 779-412, and he ranks #15 all-time for the most wins in the history of college basketball. Henson was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, but he is yet to be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Over the years, I was fortunate enough to interview Coach Henson many times on SportsTalk. He loved college basketball, the Aggies, and the city of Las Cruces. Although he was known in his early years of coaching to have a heated rivalry with Coach Haskins, he was very complimentary of The Bear and UTEP when we spoke on-air. In May of 2004, my father had suddenly passed away from a heart attack at the age of 58. I received a ton of condolence cards, and one of them included a hand-written message from Coach Henson. I have kept that letter all of these years since it reminds me of the class act Coach Henson will always be.
It is hard to find throwbacks like Don Haskins and Lou Henson in the current sports landscape. They just do not make them like that anymore. Coach Henson's legacy in both Las Cruces and Champaign will live on forever.