After 41 seasons as a head coach, 775 career victories, 19 NCAA appearances, and two NCAA Final Four trips, most coaches would think it was time to hang up the whistle, retire the clipboard and fade away into retirement. However, 72-year-old New Mexico State head men’s basketball coach Lou Henson has no such plans.
Henson begins his 17th season at NMSU, his eighth since returning to NMSU in 1997, with the idea of building a nationally recognized Aggie basketball team.
Henson and the Aggies concluded the 2003-04 season with a 13-14 record and a 6-9 record in the conference. During the year, Henson did manage to move up the ladder on the all-time winningest coaches list to seventh, surpassing Henry Iba. He needs just four more victories to surpass Jerry Tarkanian for the number six spot ont he list.
The Aggies finished the 2002-03 season at 20-9, winning 9 out of their last 12 games, including three consecutive conference battles. Henson and company beat some impressive non-conference opponents last season including Colorado, New Mexico and rival UTEP. With a 9-6 conference record, Henson and the Aggies finished second in the Western Division in the Sun Belt Conference. Henson climbed his way up the ladder again, moving into 8th place all-time for wins by a Division I coach, surpassing Phog Allen and Ed Diddle. Henson is just four wins away from seventh all-time.
New Mexico State concluded the 2000-01 campaign with what seemed to be a mediocre 14-14 overall record. However, the Aggies matched the 1969-70 NCAA Final Four team as the only squad under Henson to finish a season by winning nine of its final 10 contests. NMSU’s late season push also propelled them into a tie for second place in the Western Division of the Sun Belt Conference with a 10-6 record, one game behind champion South Alabama. Henson also guided forward James Moore to Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year honors and saw junior guard Eric Channing receive all-conference accolades for the third consecutive season. Channing also became the first NMSU player, and only under Henson, to be named two years back-to-back first team Verizon Academic All-America.
2000-01 also saw Henson, who had a 722-365 (.665) college career record at the time, become NMSU’s all-time winningest coach with a record of 232-105 (.688). In his eighth seasons since returning to NMSU, Henson guided the Aggies to a pair of 20-win seasons, appearances in the NCAA and National Invitation Tournament, and captured the 1999 Big West Conference Tournament championship. Henson, who ranks second on the active coaching wins list, also led the Aggies to a sweep of rivals UTEP and New Mexico in 1999-00 and an upset win over the 12th-ranked Lobos at The Pit in Albuquerque on Jan. 2, 1999.
One of the most memorable seasons in Henson’s coaching career came during the 1998-99 campaign. Henson joined an elite club that consists of just 12 other head coaches in NCAA Division I annals, as he tallied his 700th career victory on Feb. 25 over Utah State. Just six weeks earlier, on Jan. 9, Henson had earned his 200th victory as head coach of New Mexico State with a 60-56 victory at UC Irvine.
Perhaps what made the 1998-99 season even more memorable was the coaching job that Henson performed on a team that began the season with an Aggie squad that totaled just four returning lettermen (in addition to four Division I transfers, four freshmen and two walk-ons). He brought the team, which was picked to finish fifth in the six-team Big West Eastern Division, together and guided them to 23 wins (including victories over NCAA Tournament participants Wisconsin and New Mexico), a Big West regular season championship (co-champions of Eastern Division), the 1999 Big West Tournament Championship (with a 79-69 win over Boise State), and into the NCAA Midwest Regional (where the Aggies played defending national champion Kentucky to a 34-34 halftime tie before losing 80-62 in New Orleans).
Henson, who led New Mexico State basketball to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, was named the Aggies' interim head coach on October 17, 1997, just two days before the start of preseason practice. In a rare move, Henson originally agreed to coach the team on a pro bono basis, and later settled on a salary of $1 a month, during the 1997-98 season. After leading the Aggies to an 18-12 record, Henson had the interim lifted from his title as he accepted a four-year contract.
The all-time winningest coach in Illinois history, Henson spent 21 seasons at the helm of the Illini. He posted a 423-224 record with Illinois and led the school to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, including the 1989 Final Four. Henson is one of 10 Division I coaches to take teams from two different universities to the Final Four. He retired from his coaching position with the Illini following the 1995-96 season. He served as an assistant to the athletic director for 18 months following his retirement.
The native of Okay, Okla. first attended Connors State Junior College before coming to New Mexico State in 1953. He spent two years with the Aggies and played basketball for the legendary Presley Askew. A starter at guard, Henson was a defensive specialist who averaged 5.5 points per game as a junior and 9.0 points per game as a senior. Henson graduated from NMSU in 1955 with a bachelor's degree in secondary education. He earned his masters degree in educational administration from NMSU in 1956.
Following his graduation, Henson immediately landed a coaching position at Las Cruces High School. After two years as the junior varsity coach, he became the head coach and spent four years guiding the Bulldawg varsity. He posted a record of 145-23 and won state championships in 1959, 1960 and 1961.
At the age of 30, Henson moved into the collegiate ranks as head coach at Hardin-Simmons University in 1962. In four years, he compiled a record of 67-36 with a pair of 20-win seasons, each of which represented the school record for victories in a season.
Henson's alma mater came calling in 1966 in desperate need of a coach to rebuild an NMSU team that had fallen to a dismal 4-22. Up to the challenge, Henson returned to Las Cruces and subsequently led the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament in his first season.
His first squad at NMSU, dubbed the "Miracle Midgets," posted a 15-11 record without a starter over 6-foot-5. The Aggies lost to Elvin Hayes and Houston, 59-58, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after having twice defeated defending national champion Texas-El Paso during the regular season. The captain of Henson's first Aggie team was Rob Evans, currently the head coach at Arizona State University.
That first recruiting class of Henson's yielded a trio of gems who led New Mexico State to prominence over the next three years. Sam Lacey, Jimmy Collins, and Charlie Criss became the cornerstones of NMSU's first-ever Final Four team in 1969-70.
In his second year, the Aggies posted a 23-6 record and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 with a win over Dick Motta’s Weber State team before losing to UCLA. The 1968-69 team jumped off to the best start in school history, winning its first 16 games. The Aggies reached the round of 16 for the second straight year, with a win over Brigham Young, but again lost to UCLA to finish the season 23-6. NMSU was ranked as high as No. 6 in the country during that season.
Henson's 1969-70 New Mexico State team is considered the greatest in school history. The Aggies won their first eight games en route to a 27-3 record and advanced to the Final Four at College Park, Md. The Aggies defeated Rice, Kansas State and Drake before again losing to nemesis UCLA in the national semifinals. The Aggies bounced back to defeat St. Bonaventure in the consolation game to finish third in the nation.
With Collins, Lacey and Criss all having moved on to professional basketball, Henson faced a major rebuilding job in 1970-71. But he responded with a 19-8 record and a fifth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The 1971-72 team posted a 19-6 record and featured a superbly talented scorer in "Super" John Williamson, who set most of NMSU's scoring records. The 1973 team fell to 12-14; Henson's only losing season in Las Cruces. The 1973-74 squad put up a respectable 14-11 record.
The final season of Henson's first stint at NMSU, the 1974-75 campaign, saw the Aggies rebound to 20-7 overall. Henson was named Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year as NMSU earned an NCAA bid but lost its first round match-up with North Carolina.
Henson has recruited and coached the only five players in New Mexico State's history to earn All-America honors. They include Williamson in 1972, Collins and Lacey in 1970, and Criss in 1969 and James Moore in 2003.
Henson left NMSU following the 1974-75 season to succeed Gene Bartow as the head coach at the University of Illinois. He led the Illini to a Big Ten co-championship in 1984 and was named ESPN's National Coach of the Year as well as the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1993.
Besides the Final Four appearance in 1989, a year in which the Illini posted a 31-5 record, Henson had 11 other NCAA Tournament visits. He coached the Illini to nine consecutive 20-win seasons from 1982-91 and averaged better than 20 wins per season.
Henson retired from his coaching duties at the University of Illinois following an 18-13 campaign in 1995-96 and a spot in the NIT.
Henson is a member of three Halls of Fame, those at New Mexico State University and Hardin-Simmons University, as well as the Illinois Basketball Coaches. He was also the first person to have his jersey, No. 11, retired at Connors State and also at his high school in Okay, Okla.
Henson's legacy at New Mexico State includes more than just a sterling basketball record. While also serving as director of athletics during his first tenure with the Aggies, Henson was instrumental in the construction of NMSU's Pan American Center and led the Aggies into membership in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1970. Henson has also served as the AD at Hardin-Simmons. As one of the most popular residents of the Mesilla Valley, Henson was named NMSU's "Alumnus of the Year" in 1970 and Dona Ana County's "Citizen of the Year" that same year. In 1998, NMSU President William Conroy presented Henson with the coveted “Presdent’s Service Award” in honor of his dedication and selfless devotion to his alma mater.
Henson and his wife, Mary’s commitment to academics and competitive excellence at New Mexico State was demonstrated in February of 2002, when the Henson family made a generous contribution to help establish the Lou and Mary Henson Endowment Scholarship Fund in memory of their late son, Lou Jr. The fund is designed to support deserving student-athletes at NMSU for their academic and athletic achievements.
The announcement of their $100,000 donation to the endowment fund came during the Lou Henson “Roast and Toast” Dinner, on February 8th, 2002 in conjunction with naming the Pan American Center basketball floor “Lou Henson Court”.
Henson and his wife Mary have homes in both Las Cruces and Champaign, Ill. They have three daughters, Lisa, Lori and Leigh Anne. Their son, Lou Jr., who had entered the collegiate coaching profession at Parkland College in Champaign, was killed in an automobile accident on Nov. 20, 1992. The Hensons are grandparents to 12 grandchildren.