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  • Jordan Banegas

Lou Henson’s Five Greatest Basketball Moments

It’s impossible to put into words what Lou Henson means to NM State University, the New Mexico and Illinois communities and to me personally, but for Lou’s sake I will try.

Lou was a Cruceño through and through, coaching the 1950’s Las Cruces High Bulldogs to a state championship before taking the reins of the Aggie program in 1966. Henson was not only the greatest Aggie and Illini coach of all time, he’s one of the best to ever do it period. Only two coaches have the honor of two NCAA Division I courts named after them: Lou Henson and a guy you may have heard of named John Wooden. He’s 15th on the all-time winningest coach list with 779 wins and one of only four NCAA coaches to lead two institutions to 200+ wins. In 2015, Henson continued to etch his place in college basketball history when he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Additionally, since 2009, Henson has been honored by a national annual award for the Country’s best mid-major player--The Lou Henson Award. The GOAT (greatest of all-time) is not beloved by all only for his accomplishments; Henson’s grace, humor and admirable character puts him in a league of his own. 

I had the honor of spending time with Coach Henson during my tenure on the NMSU Board of Regents. We spent breakfast and dinners together talking hoops, collegiate athletics and university governance. He once gifted me with a copy of his book “Lou, Winning at Illinois.”  with a gracious note on the inside. Though the telling memory in my mind that exemplifies his genuine care for people occurred after my time on the Board. I received a call from an unfamiliar Illinois number and was pleased to hear a familiar voice on the other end--Coach just calling to check in. 

I’d like to Honor Lou by highlighting the five greatest basketball moments of his career. Please note that these are basketball moments because there would be no way to capture his holistic impact on our lives outside of the game he loved. Rest in Peace, Coach Henson. 

5. Induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame

It was long overdue but in 2015, Lou settled into the place he long deserved to be in, the Hall of Fame. In addition to the plethora of achievements listed above, Lou is one of only fifteen NCAA coaches to lead two separate programs to the Final Four. He will now forever be remembered with the best of them. 

4. 1984 Elite Eight Run

Lou’s #2 seeded Illini ran through powerhouses Vilanova and Maryland before a narrow three point loss to #1 seed Kentucky Wildcats, the second time they had lost to them that year. Henson won his 400th basketball game this year, and had Illinois ranked as high as #6 in both the Coaches and AP polls. The 1984 season was one of a record nine 20-win consecutive seasons for Henson in Champagne. 

3. 700th win at NM State

Lou’s second tenure at NM State was special for many reasons, the first being he swooped in to save his reeling program that nearly received the death penalty due to academic fraud scandals and he did it for free. Well, almost for free--Henson wanted to donate his services to the University but was prevented by state law. The school and coach settled on an agreement: a $1 salary per month to appease all parties. Henson told reporters in 2004: “I got three checks and they were for 77 cents of net pay--I still have them.” Secondarily, Henson achieved the 700 win plateau in his second tenure and with that, as the LA Times put it joined “Elite company.” NM State will forever be indebted to Henson for not only putting them on the map originally but redeeming the program out of the ashes. The 700th win was even sweeter considering it came against conference rival Utah State in 1999. Check out a recap of that night below. 

2. 1989 NCAA Final Four

One trip to the Final Four is great, two is better. Henson continued to etch his greatness into college basketball history by taking his Fighting Illini to the national semifinal where they fell just short to Steve Fisher’s Michigan Wolverines. Check out highlights from this battle below. 

1. 1970 NCAA Final Four

The crown jewel of NM State Basketball and Coach Henson’s illustrious career. Many say that had Sam Lacey been healthy for this game, we’d be national champions; we’ll leave the speculation for Aggie Nation and in the meantime bask in Lou’s greatness. You can check out highlights from that historic moment below as well as an oral history of the deep run and battle against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) and John Wooden’s Bruins. 

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