CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Lou Henson, the plain-spoken coach who took New Mexico State and Illinois to the Final Four during a 21-year career that included nearly 800 victories and a feud with fellow Big Ten coach Bob Knight, died Saturday at his home in Champaign. He was 88.
He left the game as the winningest coach at both Illinois and New Mexico State and still ranks fifth all-time among Big Ten coaches in total wins (423) and conference wins (214). In 2015, he was named to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
“He was so instrumental in all of our lives,” former Illinois and pro player Stephen Bardo said Wednesday.
Mr. Henson stressed preparation and discipline. But his best team, the 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini that reached the NCAA semifinals, won with a fluid mix of athleticism and style.
Mr. Henson was gracious and gregarious, yet also serious. But he made headlines for his contentious dispute with Indiana’s Knight, while his comb-over hair style, the Lou-Do, served as a source of amusement.
And for years after Mr. Henson left the sidelines, he and his wife, Mary, were widely loved, unofficial ambassadors for both Illinois and New Mexico State and the towns where they’re located, Champaign, Ill., and Las Cruces, N.M.
“Who doesn’t love Lou? Seriously — who doesn’t love him?” former NBA player Reggie Theus, who succeeded Mr. Henson at New Mexico State and considered him a mentor, once said. “Because he’s genuine. There’s no ego there.”
A native of Okay, Okla., Mr. Henson played college basketball at New Mexico State in the early 1950s. After coaching at Las Cruces High School — where he won three state titles — and Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, Mr. Henson took over at New Mexico State in 1966.
His Aggies made the NCAA Tournament in each of his first five seasons, including a Final Four appearance in 1970.
Wins at New Mexico State led Mr. Henson to Illinois in 1975, where he took over a program that had struggled since an NCAA scandal in the 1960s.
He wanted to build with players from Illinois, and particularly talent-rich Chicago, but warned that might be a slow process.
“We’re going to try to build relations in our state,” he said during an interview years later. “And we did.”
Mr. Henson had to wait for his fifth Illini team to win 20 games, a benchmark Mr. Henson set for all his teams. He took Illinois to the NCAA Tournament in his sixth season, in 1980-81.
By the time Bardo and the rest of the Flyin’ Illini were on campus, the talent pipeline Henson set out to build — and one Illinois coaches since have hoped to match — was flowing. Nine Henson teams made it to the NCAA Tournament between 1981 and 1990.
“His numbers speak for themselves,” said Bardo, who works as a TV commentator. “And he was an underrated preparer. It was rare that we ever got surprised in a game.”
The Flyin’ Illini were Mr. Henson’s best team.
Led by Bardo, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, and Nick Anderson, Illinois reached the Final Four with 31 wins before finally losing to Michigan by two points.
In 1990, the NCAA put Illinois on probation for rules violations. Among them were improper contacts with recruits by longtime assistant Jimmy Collins and car loans made to three players without requiring full credit information by a booster who owned a car dealership.
Mr. Henson left Illinois in 1996, never getting the Illini back to his own 20-win benchmark after the NCAA probation. He returned to New Mexico State for another seven seasons, winning the Big West in 1999 and advancing once more to the NCAA Tournament.