LAS CRUCES, NM (KTSM) – Lou Henson, New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) all-time winningest coach, died Saturday in his home in Champaign, Illinois, at the age of 88 — NMSU director of athletics Mario Moccia confirmed to KTSM 9 Sports on Wednesday.
The News-Gazette in Champaign was the first to report Henson’s passing.
“Aggie Nation’s hearts are heavy today,” NMSU director of athletics Mario Moccia said in a statement. “We have lost an Aggie icon. Coach Henson may be gone, but the memories he provided us with and the legacy he created will last forever. He was responsible for almost 800 wins in the record book and the most memorable event in our university’s history of athletics: the trip to the 1970 Final Four. Coach Henson’s legacy was equally felt off the court in the lives he touched – those of his former players, people on this campus, and friends in Las Cruces and around the state of New Mexico. We are all better for whatever time we were privileged to spend with Lou. Coach made everyone feel like a friend. I so enjoyed my time with Coach these last five years, and I will miss him as friend and an advisor. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mary, Lisa, Lori, Leigh Anne, and the entire Henson family. Their family will always be part of ours.”
According to the News-Gazette, Henson’s death went unannounced this past weekend and he was buried Wednesday morning at Roselawn Cemetery in Champaign. The family’s wish was to keep his death private due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, which limits large gatherings for occasions such as funerals.
Since the news of his death broke on Wednesday morning, Henson’s memory and legacy is being shared across the college basketball landscape on social media.
Henson coached a half-century, dating back to his days at Las Cruces High School where he led the Bulldawgs to three state championships. In 1966, he became the head coach at NMSU, his alma mater. In 1970, Henson guided the Aggies to the Final Four, the only Final Four appearance in program history.
“Lou Henson was the epitome of class and a one-of-a-kind coach,” said NMSU men’s basketball head coach Chris Jans. “What he did for New Mexico State and the sport of college basketball is something that few before or since have accomplished. He is revered by two fan bases which is extremely rare in our business. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Mary, Lisa, Lori, Leigh Anne and all of the Henson family. May he rest in peace.”
Henson was revered by his players at NMSU.
“He was strict, but you have to understand at 18 or 19-years-old, you do need some guidance,” said former Aggie Jeff Smith, a member of the Final Four team in 1970. “I took his guidance, the things I learned from him, into my everyday life and into my business life as well.”
“I was very fortunate to have him as a coach not only as an athlete, but he talked to me a lot about life,” said Roy Neal, another member of the 1970 Final Four team. “I just observed him a lot and just how he conducted himself.”
“Coach Henson became more than a mentor in my life,” said Chito Reyes, a member of the 1970 Final Four team. “He believed in me and allowed me to grow as an athlete, but even more importantly, he gave me direction in my life and the will to develop an intense work and moral ethic, which would prove to be priceless in my journey through life and its challenges.”
In 1975, Henson jumped to the Big Ten with the University of Illinois. In 21 years with the Fighting Illini, Henson garnered 423 wins. His best Fighting Illini team was the 1988-89 squad that won a school-record 31 games and went to the Final Four.
Henson returned to NMSU in 1997 as the interim head coach after Neil McCarthy was fired before the start of the season. Henson saw it as giving back to the university he loved and accepted the interim position with a salary of $1 per month. Henson was given his old job back on a more permanent basis after a successful season and he continued to coach at NMSU until his health began to deteriorate. He retired midway through the 2004-05 season after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins-lymphoma.
Henson finished his coaching career with 779 career wins, which ranks 16th in Division I men’s basketball history. He is the all-time winningest coach at Illinois and NMSU. Henson was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005.