Former Illinois coach calls it quits

By Erik Hall

The winningest coach in Illinois men’s basketball history has stepped down.

Lou Henson announced his retirement as New Mexico State men’s basketball coach Saturday.

“Mary (Henson, Lou’s wife) and I had known for a while that we really didn’t have much of a choice. I just felt that my health would not permit me to continue to coach,” Henson said Saturday.

Henson served as Illinois men’s basketball coach from 1975-1996, during which he won a school record 423 games. His teams won the 1983-1984 Big Ten Championship and Henson guided the Flyin’ Illini to the 1989 Final Four.

“If Lou could get out there and coach he would,” said Steve Bardo, who played for Henson at Illinois from 1986-1990. “Obviously the health situation is much more important so that he can enjoy himself and make a full recovery from his latest bout. I would love to see him on the sideline. I would rather see them, him and his wife Mary, enjoy their life than him try to get back on the sideline.”

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Henson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, two years ago. The cancer is now in remission and he was able to coach last season through the cancer treatment. In September, Henson was hospitalized with viral encephalitis, a disease that left his right leg paralyzed.

He attempted a return to coaching earlier this month. The day before the Saturday game he was scheduled to return and coach, Henson went to the hospital with pneumonia.

“It (retirement) was such an easy decision and it’s been that way for a while for Mary and me,” Henson said Saturday morning on WDWS-AM. “It was easy because we know that I just cannot afford to try to come back.”

Henson finishes with a career record of 779-413, and his 779 career wins is the sixth most all-time. Only current Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight has more career wins among active coaches.

“I am sad for college basketball because he’s been one of the most winningest coaches in the history of the game,” said Northern Illinois men’s basketball coach Rob Judson. Judson played for Henson at Illinois from 1976-1980. “I was happy for him that he felt now was the time to enjoy his retirement.”

Henson coached at New Mexico State, his alma mater, from 1966 to 1975, then spent 21 years at Illinois, before retiring in 1996. That lasted only a year, with Henson returning to New Mexico State after Neil McCarthy was fired just before the start of the 1997-98 season.

In a 41-year career, Henson became the winningest coach at New Mexico State, as well as Illinois.

“It marks the end of a tremendous career that spanned four decades,” Bardo said. “He had a wonderful run and did a tremendous job of developing young men. Outside of developing great basketball players he developed young men.”