RIP Lou Henson
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I'm sitting here writing about some Florida defensive back who committed to Illinois when the news hits me with a punch to the gut: Lou Henson has passed away. The last 45 minutes have been spent looking at photos, watching old YouTube videos, and generally reliving my childhood. "Describe your childhood in one photo"? I choose that photo above.
As I said on Twitter, I'm sitting here today with an Illinois degree because of Lou Henson. The spring of 1989 settled it. I knew I wanted to go to Illinois before that, but the run to the Final Four (spring of my sophomore year of high school) settled it. Every action beyond that point was focused on "how do I get the grades and the ACT score necessary to gain admission?". I had a very late start (a late start to "actually trying"), but somehow I pulled off just enough of an ACT score to fool the admissions department into letting me in.
So that degree hanging on the wall - it wasn't because of the academic reputation of this fine University. It's there because Lou Henson built a basketball program. I basically applied to the Orange Krush, not to the College Of Fine And Applied Arts. Want to motivate a sports-crazed 15 year-old who doesn't apply himself? Dangle #2 Illinois vs. #17 Georgia Tech in front of him.
I thought about the best way to pay tribute to Coach Henson, and I realized that there's probably no better way than to repost something Tyler wrote in 2015. All of my "I wanted to go to Illinois because of Lou" falls so very short of Tyler's memories of actually playing for the man. Tyler wrote this when the court at the State Farm Center was named Lou Henson Court in 2015, so if you're wondering why there are references to Coach Groce, that's why. But I don't think there's any better way to pay tribute than words written by a walkon on that incredible 1989 team.
You know, the one in my favorite Illini photo of all time.
Growing up in central Illinois without close proximity to any one major metro area (three hours from Chicago, two hours from St. Louis, two hours from Indy), my professional team growing up was the University of Illinois. As such, the stars of the Fighting Illini were my boyhood sports heroes. I mean after all, the 80's belonged to the Illini! So with apologies to Ryne Sandberg, my sports heart was fully engaged to names like Eddie Johnson, Derek Harper, Jack Trudeau, David Williams, Efrem Winters, and Bruce Douglas.
Beyond that, as one who gravitated toward basketball over football at an early age, to me, the singular figurehead of my Illini sports fandom was always Coach Lou Henson. His was the name synonymous with Fighting Illini basketball from the first moment I even knew what that was. He was the coach for the first game I watched as an eight year old in 1977 and for the next 19 seasons I cheered, celebrated, agonized, lived, and died with virtually every moment of his coaching career at Illinois. As a fitting bookend I was also at the last game he coached - a decidedly anti-climactic first round NIT loss in March of 1996 to Alabama at the Arena Formerly Known as Assembly Hall.
The funny thing happened in the midst of those two decades: I stumbled across the incredible fortune of being able spend one magical season wearing the uniform of the team I grew up idolizing and being coached by the man I grew up admiring. You see, I was kind of lousy at basketball in high school - barely good enough to scratch the JV team. So even after a long overdue growth spurt, the notion that whatever I did over a two day walk-on tryout in my junior year somehow resonated with this larger than life figure astonishes me to this day. Yet there I was on November 26, 1988 running out of the Assembly Hall tunnel onto that storied court proudly wearing the orange and blue (and hand-me-down shoes from Nick Anderson that were two sizes too big). Surreal.
Of course I didn't play much. The sum total of my NCAA career was two games (ironically the very first two I ever dressed) and zero measurable statistics. But my role as a walk-on/scout team member during the 1988-89 Final Four season allowed me the unique opportunity to observe Coach Henson from a vantage point afforded very few individuals. I gained an appreciation for the job he did that ran far deeper than what I thought I knew about college basketball previously.
To this day, when I observe (and participate) in arguments over the relative successes and failures of coaches and players, the one crucial facet almost always absent from these discussions is context. The context of everything that goes on within a program on a day to day basis and factors in to every decision made and every action taken by a basketball coach. Context to which few are privy.
So if I may use that privileged context in an effort to rebut a somewhat popular opinion, let me say that the man could seriously coach the game of basketball. Very little escaped his watchful eye - he was fully attuned to every nuance of a basketball drill, practice, or game. Despite his rather unassuming demeanor, he was a great leader who commanded the respect of everyone in that locker room.
His greatest strength - game preparation (and specifically defensive game planning) - bordered on obsessive. His prep would painstakingly detail the tendencies of every player on an opponent who might even sniff playing time. He deserves immense credit for understanding what he had in the Flying Illini and allowing that squad to adopt a style of play as unfamiliar and unconventional as any team in the country - a style unfamiliar to Illini basketball fans for sure. Yet his coaching that season went far beyond the prevailing notion that all he did was simply roll out the ball and get out of the way.
Still, his best coaching might have come three years later - just one season removed from the program staggering NCAA probation. I mean, he took Deon Thomas and a bunch of farm kids to two consecutive NCAA tournaments, and almost had the program fully rebuilt before rival Big Ten schools began using his age and rumored retirement against him in recruiting battles. Fittingly, his achievements throughout his entire career will be duly recognized with his upcoming induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame this November.
So the news yesterday that the newly renovated State Farm Center floor will be named in Coach Henson's honor - complete with his iconic orange blazer - makes me happy beyond measure. An honor fully deserved and long overdue. The perfect recognition of everything he meant to the University of Illinois over his storied career.
Yet in many corners of the internet I've seen resistance to this idea. There are those who would cite unfulfilled expectations, missed opportunities, middling win percentages, and even an NCAA probation tarnished legacy as reasons against bestowing him this honor.
All those arguments miss the point. Illinois basketball is Illinois basketball because of Coach Henson. For the better part of the past 10 years Illini fans have decried the state of the program under Bruce Weber and John Groce, but what so many miss is the reason we as fans hold the program to such lofty expectations each year is exactly because of what Coach Henson built. He firmly established - and maintained - the bar for the Illinois basketball program we now know over his 21 seasons, 423 victories, 12 NCAA tournaments, 3 Sweet Sixteens, and 1 magical Final Four. From my view, those accomplishments are justification enough, but when his contributions to the university as a whole and his inseparable bond with the community of Champaign-Urbana are factored in as well, this honor becomes a full-on no-brainer.