Brad Underwood had just stepped off the practice court Thursday morning, but his mind was at the bowling alley, where he and the man he calls “Coach” shared their last lunch together.
“One of the truly great, iconic, figures in all of Illinois athletic history,” said the Illini men’s basketball coach about Hall of Famer Lou Henson. “You are sad.
“Your thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family. And yet, there are 88 years of a great life and a lot of success that should be celebrated. I’m really fortunate to have gotten to know him.”
The news of Henson’s death has produced a flood of stirring tributes to the 88-year-old whose 42 years of college coaching included 19 NCAA Tournament appearances between New Mexico State and Illinois, and two Final Four appearances, one at each school.
Henson, the wins leader at both Illinois and New Mexico State, is one of just two college coaches in the country to have two schools play on a court that carries his name. The other? UCLA legend John Wooden. Pretty good company.
Henson’s list of accomplishments is incredible, and yet it still falls short of accurately encapsulating a life that began when the son of sharecroppers was born in Okay, Oklahoma, in 1932. Henson turned out much more than OK. His legacy is one of success on the court, one of lives positively impacted away from it, and one of remarkable perseverance through trying times that included the tragic loss of a son in a 1992 car accident and the cruel diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2003.
Henson was a gentleman coach in an era that too often supported the falsehood that coaching meaner meant coaching better. He was also a remarkable innovator.
His marketing skills and colorful clashes with Missouri legend Norm Stewart helped turn the Braggin’ Rights game into a family heirloom every holiday season. He started the Orange Krush student section that still makes opponents sweat. He was the first Illini coach to wear an orange blazer on the sideline, a tradition maintained by those who followed him, from Bill Self to Bruce Weber, when a big game needed some orange juice.
“I’ll never look as good in the jacket as he did,” Underwood said. “I just hope to try to, one day, win as many games as he did.”
Countless coaches talk about turning their program into a family. Henson did it. Underwood has evidence in the form of a 900-person database of former players and managers who maintain a connection with the team.
“They all come back,” Underwood said. “Not all of them played for Coach. But the majority of them did. Great programs have a place for former players and people involved in the program to call home, and that is very evident at Illinois. Coach is largely responsible for that.”
Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin was close to being in that database, and probably would have been if Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, then an assistant at Iowa, had not created uncertainty at Illinois by raising concerns with the NCAA about the Illini’s recruitment of prospect Deon Thomas. Pearl’s respect for the NCAA rules clearly faded over time. Martin’s respect for Henson and his wife, Mary, did not.
“I thought he was a wonderful man,” Martin said Thursday. “Of course, I love (former Purdue) coach (Gene) Keady, but before Coach Keady, I was going to play for Coach Henson at Illinois. I went on an official visit, and I had a chance to sit in his home. His wife was a wonderful lady. And what is amazing, years ago, when Coach was out of coaching, his wife remembered me. That was neat for me. She was that kind of person, and he was a good man. The figurehead of that program.”
Another part of Henson’s legacy too often gets overlooked. It came in 1962, before the New Mexico State guard turned Las Cruces High School coach agreed to accept the job at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. Henson told school officials they had to agree to let him integrate the all-white team before he accepted the job. He later referred to that moment as one of his proudest.
“That’s one of the things that is maybe not talked about enough,” Underwood said. “Coach was at the leading edge of that, pushing.”
Underwood was a 20-something assistant coach at a Kansas community college when he first met Henson at a basketball camp. The two shared a connection even then. Underwood had just finished a stint as a graduate assistant at Hardin-Simmons. Their paths continued to cross as Underwood continued his coaching climb, once when Henson cold-called the Stephen F. Austin basketball office to compliment the way Underwood coached defense. Things came full circle when Underwood became the Illini coach entering the 2017-18 season. Henson, retired from his second run at New Mexico State since 2005, had returned to Champaign and remained invested in the program.
There was always room for Underwood at Henson’s favorite lunch spot, Old Orchard Lanes in Savoy. Underwood fondly remembered that last lunch they shared. He always will.
“He was committed to his beliefs and his values,” Underwood said. “And we saw that at the end of Coach’s life. He fought through some heath issues, and just kept fighting. Something we can all learn from, that experience and what he went through. It sure means a lot to me.”
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