Fans and friends share their memories of Lou Henson:
Lou and Mary made the trip to my wedding in Michigan in the fall of 1988. While this was due to their great friendship with my parents, Tom and Andy, it meant so much to Kris and I as well. We then were so fortunate to follow his 1988-89 team to the Final Four, including a memorable trip to Seattle with our entire family.
Fast forward to 2012 when my father’s cancer left him homebound. Prior to his passing that year, Lou and George Shapland visited him for a special lunch to lift his spirits. They relived many stories and celebrated together their long friendship that day. Lou took me aside that afternoon and told me how special my dad was to him and what it meant to call him his friend.
This Hall of Famer showed us what true friendship was and he will be dearly missed by the Harrington family.
Tim Harrington, Champaign
What made Lou so special: His kindness and genuine interest in people – specifically, students.
I was at the U of I from 1982-1986 and worked in the Assembly Hall, but not part of the athletic department. When Coach met you in the hallway, he always stopped. First to introduce himself, and subsequently to simply smile, say hello, and ask how you were. Simple, genuine interest in the individual without being too busy to invest the time. We can and should all learn from his example.
He will be deeply missed.
Ann Hastings Kafer, Bloomington
My son, Sam, was diagnosed in July of 2007 with Ewing’s Sarcoma. One evening the phone rang and Sam answered it.
He hung up and I asked who it was, he said, ‘It was Coach Henson, he asked if I would like to come to his house and have lunch with him and Mary.’ I asked if he was going to go, he said, ‘Of course.’
It was a week or so later and he went to their house and had lunch. When he returned home, I asked how it went.
Sam said it was ‘good.’ He added that Coach was called away shortly after lunch and Sam spent the rest of the time visiting with Mary. Before the Coach left, he autographed a copy of his book and gave it to Sam.
I still to this day do not know how the Coach knew about Sam and his cancer diagnosis. I know it was a very bright spot for Sam at a very difficult time during his treatment. Coach Henson was a very kind and thoughtful man.
Janet Wells, Savoy
Our last adventure with him was in February when Mary had us come over and take a video of him to send immediately to Wright State because that night was going to be Scott Nagy’s 500th win. They wanted to have a congratulations video on their screen right after from Lou, who had known him his whole life. He came across real well in the video, which I still have on my phone.
Barb Barker, Champaign
When I was a freshman at Illinois (in 1980), I went to Lou’s office at the Assembly Hall and asked if he would sign a photograph that I planned to give to my brother for Christmas. My brother, who is 3 years older, was a senior at the time and, like me, a huge Illini basketball fan. Three years later, during my senior year, I was working in the press box during an Illini football game, when my boss, assistant SID Dale Ratterman, asked if I wanted to meet Lou. I told Dale I’d already met him, but sure, I’d love to shake Coach’s hand. Dale said to Lou, ‘Coach, I want you to meet John, he’s one of our interns, big basketball fan from Pekin.’ Lou stands up, looks at me and says in that great Southern drawl of his, ‘Oh, gosh, I remember John — how’s your brother Bob these days?’ Keep in mind, Coach Henson hadn’t seen or spoken to me in three years, but he remembered not only my name, but my brother’s as well. Hard not to love a guy like that.
John Walker, Champaign
In Lou’s second year, the guys I lived with and I had won the small ticket lottery (less than 10) so we had first pick at season tickets. We had 10 season tickets right at halfcourt just as it sloped up a little so we could see over the people in chairs on the floor. Well, Lou comes walking by us after a nice win and I call out ‘Coach, I think Rick Leighty is playing too many minutes.’ His smile turns to a look of chagrin and he says ‘I make those decisions young man!’ Always struck me how protective he was of his guys and how he had a little bantam rooster in him as well. A gentleman but a tough competitor. RIP Coach Lou!
Bob Lewicki, Portland, Ore.
As a longtime fan of Illini basketball but not a personal acquaintance of Coach Lou Henson, I found the final remark in his New York Times’ story telling: Leigh Anne, the youngest daughter, said that as a child she would draw basketball plays and leave them on her father’s desk. ‘After the game,’ she said, ‘he would say, Did you see that play of yours we used? And I’d say yes. I believed it for the longest time.’
Eugene Giles, Champaign
I grew up in Champaign, went to public schools, and later attended and graduated from the U of I. I have two older sisters: Mary Anna, and Melissa. We were friends with all the Bedford street neighborhood kids.
My sister Mary now lives in L.A., and is an art professor. She remembers how Illinois basketball players would come to Coach Henson’s home for BBQ’s during the year, and play with all the neighborhood kids in the street. She noted how Lou cultivated and grew that sense of family in our shared community, especially with his teams, and how it permeated and augmented the culture of Champaign-Urbana.
We lived on Bedford Drive in the early 80s, before my mom Merry-Ann passed away from breast cancer (in 1983). That same year, my dad opened up Merry-Ann’s Diner.
After moving, my Illini fandom really took off, especially in 1986 (I was 7 years old). One evening, I caught on to the idea of really wanting to write about Illinois basketball in my first-grade journal. My favorite player was Tony Wysinger — we shared the same name, and he was a great FT shooter. I needed to know his free throw % for my journal, so I called the library, and they couldn’t help me.
So I did what any enterprising 7-year-old would do: I looked up Lou Henson’s phone number. You should have seen my father’s face when I ran downstairs and told him that I had just talked to Coach Lou! I simply couldn’t believe I found his name in the phone book — it was listed! And, I couldn’t believe that he gently told me that he didn’t have the figure on the top of his head, but to call so-and-so (a nice lady at the office) who could get me that FT percentage in the morning. I was ecstatic, and I have carried that sweet memory throughout my life. My father was equal parts proud and embarrassed, and told me to never call folks or pick up the phone without asking him first.
After the magic of the 1989 season, I received ‘Lou: Winning at Illinois’ as a Christmas gift. I devoured it, and was again overjoyed by one of Lou’s actions: seeing Merry-Ann’s Diner cited within the pages. Lou wrote that the ball players were often sequestered at The Chancellor hotel before big games, and that he only allowed them to go out if they were eating at McDonald’s or Merry-Ann’s! My 10-year-old brain thought it was the coolest thing ever. I ran downstairs, and told my Dad that Lou was talking about our diner in his new book! My dad assured me that, yes, it was very cool.
Years later, I was cooking at the diner, helping to pay my own way through college, and Lou and Mary came in. I walked over to his table, and told them that we used to be neighbors — he knew my family, and told me he remembered my mom very well, and that she was a wonderful woman. It simply meant so much to a young man who really had just a handful of memories of his own mother. I remember picking up the phone, calling my dad, and telling him that Lou and I just talked. Again, he thought that was pretty cool.
Lou’s selflessness, patience, and kindness seeped into the cultural makeup of C-U; he did so much good for everyone. He will always be the standard by which Illini coaches are judged, and, in a more informed world, by which all of us are.
Anthony Pomonis, Champaign
Many years ago I coached basketball in the Champaign Park District. I coached a team with my daughter on it and also on that team was Lou’s granddaughter (Lindsay). I used to joke that it worked out well because I didn’t tell Lou how to run his team and Lou didn’t give my number to Loren Tate. Lou missed most of our games because of the Illini schedule, but Mary was there cheering us on a lot.
During this time my daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness that required many surgeries and treatments. I was also losing the job I had at the time and losing the health insurance I had. My sister-in-law was organizing a benefit sports auction to help pay for the COBRA insurance and she contacted Lou (among others) for donations of items for the auction. Not only did Lou provide many Illini items for this benefit, he also wrote out a generous check and donated personally.
Knowing the kind of people Lou and Mary were, I know I was not the only person touched by them in the community. I’m sure there were many who were touched by them like I was. Quietly. Sincerely. Generously.
Thanks Lou. Thanks Mary.
Mike Terwilliger, Galva
I have fond memories of working at Baskin-Robbins that was by the old Eisner grocery store at Kirby and Prospect. This store was owned by Lou and Mary Henson, and they were often in the store (as were their daughters) and were great with both customers and staff, smiling and handing out ice cream cones.
Felicia Derby Greenwood, Stoughton, Wis.
In the fall of 1975 I was a junior at Illinois enrolled in a journalism class. Lou Henson had just been hired and had been on campus just a few weeks when my instructor invited him to give a news conference to our class, just like a real one except there were no professional journalists there, just us students.
Henson came in and spoke to our class for a few minutes and then spent the rest of the class period answering questions. Future Olympian Craig Virgin was in that class, and he had some good questions for the coach, as did several other classmates who followed Illinois basketball more closely than I did.
I was impressed with the way he treated us like we were real writers asking important questions. He didn’t act as though this classroom ‘news conference’ was just a throwaway event. He was friendly and engaged, and he stayed long enough for everyone who had a question to have a chance to ask it.
Anne McIntyre, Champaign
In the 1980s and early 1990s Lou and my dad, Dale Cozad, were very good friends. My dad was very involved with Rebounders and he and Lou did a lot together in a variety of activities. In the late 80s my dad became very ill with cancer, which he battled for five years before passing away. During the final year of Dad’s illness, Lou would often reach out to him and the rest of the family, offering support and friendship. Many were uncomfortable at that time being around someone so ill but Lou was not. He was friendly, calming and had a sense of peace that was comforting. Lou was an excellent basketball coach. He was an even better human being.
Greg Cozad, Champaign
Lou retired in spring of 1996, after which he came into our restaurant Katsinas quite a bit. In May we announced we were closing at the end of the week. We were then packed every day for lunch and dinner. One day he told me ‘John, it’s just like me. When I announced I was retiring, I immediately became a much better coach!’
I also remember when he was doing a postgame show with Larry Stewart. We had a player, Dennis Graff from Gibson City, whose nickname was the ‘Golden Gunner.’ Lou and Larry were taking questions from the crowd and a fan asked about putting Denny in at the end of a game to take a last shot with five seconds to go. Lou said ‘Five seconds, I’m sure he could get three or four off!’
John Katsinas, Champaign
Years ago when I was a partner in the local public accounting firm of Winakor, Bates & Brunson, my office in our building was next to the office of my partner, Lowell Garner. At that time Lowell handled the income tax return preparation responsibilities for Mary and Coach Henson. Lowell was also a frequent bridge player with Coach.
In the year that Kevin McHale was completing his play at Minnesota and was drafted by the Boston Celtics, I had a brief conversation with Coach when he was in the office. Wanting to impress Coach with my acute basketball knowledge, I shared with him my opinion that McHale was badly overrated and that the Celtics would regret using their third pick in the first round to draft McHale. Coach Henson, in his gentle way, looked me in the eye and said ‘Mike, he’s going to be a great pro basketball player.’
McHale went on to have a 13-year career with the Celtics and his honors were culminated by being named one of the 50 greatest NBA players in 1996 and the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1999. Coach knew talent!
Mike Martin, Champaign
My daughter, Hannah Taylor, was an Orange Krush chair in 2013-14, Orange Krush president in 2014-15 and got to have dinner at Lou and Mary’s house. What an honor!
Jean Taylor, Pawnee (PICTURE)
On Monday, Feb 8, 1993, I turned 21: Clearly a big deal for a college student. The drinking started early and I was to meet my family for dinner at TGI Friday’s. When I got there, Lou Henson was doing his weekly radio show. What better way to cap off my 21st! Well, in my quasi-drunken stupor, I decided that I was going to introduce myself … and that he and I were already best friends! And Lou (and I can call him that because we all felt like we knew him) could not have been any nicer! He took pictures with me. And, after telling him that I grew up watching him, that I had played on the Assembly Hall floor myself (in high school) and how my family revered him, I must have told him what sorority I lived in … BECAUSE the next day, an autographed copy of his book showed up at my sorority for me!!!!!!!!
I still have it to this day! And I treasure it!
God Bless Lou Henson!
Amy Foote, Sleepy Hollow
I had the pleasure of covering Lou’s New Mexico State teams in 1999-00 and 2000-01 as a reporter for the El Paso Times.
We would talk after press conferences and the like. I was not a good golfer, but when I mentioned to him that my wife got a hole-in-one the previous weekend, he asked for her name and where she worked.
Sure enough, Lou called my wife (he had met her once) at work to congratulate her on the hole-in-one on a hole that I carded a 7 on.
Lou was first class, always willing to answer any question and promote the program.
Nick Jezierny, Garden City, Idaho
Lou and I started at Illinois at the same time.
As a student it was so exciting to have good basketball because of him. But later as an adult I came to realize how lucky we were to have this amazing class act of a man as part of our university. Very simply he was real. Hugs to his family. Illini nation will honor him always.
Melissa Abel, Montgomery
When my husband Rick and I became interested in moving from Illinois to Las Cruces, N.M., after retirement, a mutual friend told us to contact Lou and Mary since they lived in Las Cruces. Our daughter attended U of I from 1998-2002 and was a cheerleader. Since we knew several people in common with Lou and Mary, we called them before a visit to look at possible home choices. Mary immediately wanted us to stay in their Las Cruces casita without ever having met us. Lou and Mary took us under their wing, showing us around town, taking us to NMSU basketball games and introducing us to many of their friends and family. They made us feel like family.
We enjoyed all of the times we were fortunate to be with them and have the highest respect for them. We are two of many, many individuals who have been lucky enough to get to know them and Lou has been in our thoughts and will be in our hearts forever.
Darice and Rick Palmier, Las Cruces, N.M.
It would be impossible to be a bigger Lou Henson fan than I. Who else out there has his 700-win Coke bottle from New Mexico State! My best memory: Through a friend, Mary found out how big of a fan I was. At 8 on a Sunday night, my phone rings. it’s Mary inviting me to their home. I don’t even remember driving there. They took a total stranger into their home and treated me like a long lost friend. He signed everything for me (1989 Final Four tickets, etc). RIP my friend. You brought class to our basketball program.
Robin Gray, Champaign (PICTURE)
Lou Henson was the last of the true gentlemen coaches. He stressed player development and good solid play and carried that off the court, too. He also understood how important the students and fans were to the program. We were proud to have Lou leading our Illini and representing our university.
Tony Baratta, Dixon
I was fortunate enough to meet Lou and Mary as part of my job. I had an appointment to do some work at their home. To say they were nice and welcoming would be an understatement. What really impressed me was that it was in the summer, and Lou was at a large dining room table, writing what I figured were letters to prospects. He truly was dedicated to his basketball!
A short time later, I wrote the lyrics to “Illini Get Ready!” I had the opportunity to meet him again. The basketball version was actually recorded before the football version. The first line of the song, “Ain’t nobody can control a team the way that Lou do!” said it all! Coach Henson, a man I am honored to have known!
Randy West, Streator
My Lou Henson story started in 1975. I was a freshman at Illinois, a walk-on to the swimming and diving team. My swimming background was underwhelming, particularly compared with my teammates and competitors. I was in for the struggle of my life just to get accustomed to the overwhelming workouts and to avoid being cut from the squad.
My teammates and I had done a circuit through the weight room at Memorial Stadium, and we were headed back to the pool at IMPE (now ARC) for a post-weights workout. I was walking with our coach, Don Sammons, and we were having a nice conversation about nothing important. As Don and I were talking, up walked Lou. I immediately recognized him, as his basketball program was on a sharp rise in the Big Ten; Lou Henson was something of a campus celebrity. Don introduced me to him: ‘Doug, this is Lou Henson. Lou, Doug is a new freshman with our swimming squad.’
As I shook his hand and stammered my greeting, Lou broke the ice with some comments about swimming, as though he had nothing to do but visit with us. ‘Where are you from? How did you choose Illinois? You guys train harder than any other team on campus – are you able to keep up with your classes?’ His graciousness at pulling me into the conversation was greatly appreciated and quite unexpected. I answered satisfactorily, I guess, because he kept going. ‘What’s your major? What events to you swim?’
The whole conversation didn’t last three minutes, but that was all the longer it took for Lou to make a lasting impression on me. As it turns out, I managed to avoid being cut from the team and as my four years at Illinois progressed, swimming was a mainstay. I managed to be named Most Valuable Swimmer two of my four years, and I was the team captain as a senior. Every time I saw Lou Henson after that, he would make a point of saying hello. Every, single time. He knew my name, he knew what year I was in school, and he even remembered the events I swam.
Imagine being on campus from 1975-79, which were ascendant years for Illinois basketball. Lou had his hands full, both with his team and with all of the obligations (media, otherwise) that went along with a program that was on a rocket ship to national prominence. And yet, he made a point of remembering a walk-on athlete in a non-revenue sport. I was floored.
College years are a time to learn about the world and to grow up, part of which is how to make assessments about people to admire and to avoid. I was smart enough to know to admire men like Lou Henson immediately; his qualities were very similar to those of Don Sammons, to whom I will also be forever indebted. Because of that similarity, it doesn’t surprise me at all that they were friends. I learned an important lesson from Lou Henson about how to treat people, especially including those who had no possibility of helping you.
Lou Henson is what a coach should be: A teacher. Not just a teacher of basketball, or of swimming, or of anything they ostensibly coach, but of being a good person, a good teammate and a gentleman. In Lou’s case, both a gentleman and a gentle man. I will never forget him, and will always be grateful to him.
Doug McConnell, Barrington
Leigh Anne Edison was my speech teacher at U of I in 1990. Her stories of her father were full of such love and joy. Leigh Anne was an exceptional teacher and was such a bright light in the classroom. I’m sure she doesn’t remember me, but I will always remember her kindness and spunk. I am so sorry for her and her family’s loss. God bless them.
Becky Jones Krieger, Belvidere
I played for Coach at Hardin-Simmons for his first year of college coaching (1962-65). He was a demanding coach and I am happy about that. I learned a lot from him about playing smart and hard. He never forgot where he came from and who was there with him. Years later, I would bring my stepsons to see the Illini play and he treated us so well.
Scott Rust, Houston, Mo.
My brother Lynn was a student manager for Illini basketball in the late ’80s. My other brother, Steve, had been a grad assistant for Lou a few years earlier. I covered Lou’s first few Illini teams when I was a sportswriter for The News-Gazette.
Anyway, I donated one of my kidneys to Lynn in 2007. Lynn and I heard from the expected assortment of friends and family at that time. But we also heard from Lou, and it was something of a surprise. How did he know? And why did he bother to track us down by phone at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.?
Those are rhetorical questions, of course. Lou and Mary always knew about those whose orbit had intersected with theirs. They always cared, and it was always sincere. Thanks, Coach, for showing us how it’s done.
Doug Carroll, Atlanta
My whole family, four generations, is huge Illini fans. My father never missed a home game and never left until the game was over. My brother and I honor this tradition. My dad admired Lou Henson, not just for his coaching ability but for the wonderful person he was and the example he set. My son attended Lou Henson’s basketball camp. He gave our family many wonderful memories. I met him once when buying his book and having it autographed.
God bless Mary and his family.
Linda Williams, Covington, Ind.
We moved into our current house in 1986, and were surprised to learn the Hensons lived only a block away. Not that we would see them often, as Lou was busy with the team or recruiting most of the time.
One time, in the ‘80s, I had done a portrait of Lou for one of the basketball season posters, and decided he or Mary might like it. I was thrilled when Mary called and invited me over to give the artwork to Lou.
At that time I had not met him in person, and was surprised at how genuine and friendly both he and Mary were. Mary invited me into their home and I got to see his office and the area where he would watch basketball games on TV. He thanked me profusely for the artwork and shook my hand with strength and warmth. I had been a Lou fan before that, but forever after I was die-hard.
Lou was one of the greats, and I was so proud to have known him. The Illini world has lost one of the best!
Jack Davis, Champaign
This is what made Lou Henson special. I was out of the sports media business but just happened to be visiting Las Cruces, N.M., on business, and I had some free time. So I showed up unannounced at Lou’s office at New Mexico State just to say hello.
He wasn’t there but the secretary ran him down and he came back and invited me to join him at a preseason mini-practice he was conducting. I went with him and, lo and behold, Mary showed up and she greeted me like an old friend. They asked me to join them at a family birthday dinner for one of their grandchildren. It was a wonderful evening but it didn’t end there. Lou invited me back to his home to watch a playoff baseball game. We had a great visit and I was able to see a bunch of Illini memorabilia he had in his home. Lou and Mary didn’t have to do all that.
I was just happy he came back to say hello. But it was an evening I’ll never forget. He was such a fine and gracious man. Mary, of course, is the same way. Just great people.
I had a life-long running joke with Lou. When I was a senior in high school he and Bobby Knight attended a game I was playing in (obviously recruiting someone else, East Leyden’s Glenn Grunwald, who went to Indiana). But I actually had a decent game in a game we lost in overtime to the state’s No. 1 ranked and undefeated team. I used to kid him that he went after the wrong guy and he always played along.
They just didn’t make ’em any better than Lou Henson.
Kevin Johnson (formerly of WPGU-FM and WCIA-TV), West Hartford, Conn.
I recently retired after 35 years in radio in the Peoria market, over 25 years in sales.
I learned a very important lesson on working with people from Mr. Henson after watching him being interviewed on TV for years. He almost always used the reporter’s name in their conversation — whether the individual was a seasoned pro, or a weekend reporter on his first Illini assignment,
Mr. Henson showed such honest respect for the individual in such a short amount of time, a trait I tried to use when working with clients in media sales.
Crow Carroll, Peoria
I am heartbroken. I covered Illinois sports for the (Chicago) Tribune during the Flyin’ Illini era and I grew to love Lou Henson like my own father. He was underappreciated as a coach but never was there a kinder human being. I remember he held my hand and offered encouraging words when I was not assigned to the 1989 Final Four coverage.
Lou and Mary Henson have never been out of my thoughts in the 30 years since. I love them both dearly.
Thank you for everything, Coach.
For years Lou Henson was the face of the University of Illinois. And there could have been no better image for the institution. His honesty, courage, character and determination were beyond reproach. His success on the court was mirrored by his life and those of his life partner, Mary. It is no wonder that they are so beloved by Illini fans.
Steve Rice, Bonita Springs, Fla.
It was Sept. 21, 2016. I was on my way to a symposium in San Antonio. The first leg of my trip was from Willard Airport to O’Hare. Lou and Mary Henson were also on that flight. The plane taxied out onto the runway, sat there for a long time, and then taxied back to the terminal. The passengers deplaned. That happened twice before we finally taxied out and took off. The flight was delayed by hours. I missed my next flight as I’m sure everyone else did. Passengers could be excused for being grouchy but Coach and Mary were kind and chatted pleasantly with all of those who recognized them.
Susan Gabay-Laughnan, Savoy
On Feb. 24, 1996, I was fortunate enough to be on the Illinois bench as an ‘Associate Coach,’ a prize won at a Rebounders luncheon drawing.
After Illinois beat Iowa 91-86 in OT, we all went down to the locker room for what we assumed would be some quick remarks by the coaches to the players. Coach Henson was the last person to enter and said something to the effect ‘If you guys played like that every game, I’d never retire.’ The whole room went silent and Coach simply made it formal by telling everyone present that he was retiring at the end of the season. He then immediately walked out of the room to the postgame radio show where the announcement went public.
Everyone seemed stunned at the announcement as there had been absolutely no hint at all prior to the game that he had planned to do it. I’m not sure if even the assistant coaches and basketball staff knew it was coming.
Bob Hahn, Champaign
After Lou retired, I invited him to lunch with a friend of mine, at my expense. He agreed and we met at a local restaurant, which Lou frequented. Lou, of course, presented my friend and I with an autographed copy of his book.
After we finished lunch, he called the waiter over to our table. The waiter was a young man about 17 years of age. Lou asked the waiter to tell the chef that he would like his ‘normal dessert’ for the three of us, free of charge. Within four minutes, the waiter returned and stated, ‘Excuse me, sir, but who are you?’ My friend and I choked on our laughter, not allowing it to come out, while Lou politely explained, ‘You are young and probably do not remember, but I used to coach basketball just down the street at the Assembly Hall. My name is Lou Henson.’
After the young man left, Lou turned to my friend and me and said, ‘You see, it doesn’t take long for the new generations not to know — time goes on.’
Another episode involved Mary, Lou, my son and me. Lou was at New Mexico State and preparing to go into a conference tournament with one of two teams, yet to be determined.
Mary recalled that my son, Brad Jr., lived in Idaho so she called me to get his number. Lou then called Bradley to ask if he could watch the Boise State game that night to see who won (the game was not to be broadcast in the New Mexico area). Bradley called a friend whose father lived in Boise who, in turn, taped the game and overnighted the tape to Lou.
I do not remember the teams, but NMSU won the first game they played in the tournament and, according to Lou, due to the availability of that tape. The next week both Bradley and I received T-shirts and hats with ‘Lou Henson, 700 wins’ printed on them. We were only glad to be able to assist and did not expect the shirts and hats. Lou and Mary are forever generous .
When I was « Tail Twister » for the Champaign Lions Club, I would charge Lou a fine for something he had done. Lou was so generous, he would always ‘allow’ someone else in the club to put in the 10-cent fine! So generous and so humorous.
Brad Hastings Sr., Effingham
I met Lou many years ago at the Assembly Hall, I walked up to him and he said ‘Hi! How you doing tonight! Good to see you!’ He shook my hand, big smile on his face, like he had known me for years.
As I saw the tribute to Coach (at State Farm Center), I thought there has to be something that I could do. So today I put on Illini orange in honor of Coach. Orange lights the way on this cloudy day. Thanks for the memories, Lou.
Tammy Cress, Allerton
In my nearly 40-year career teaching and advising at UIUC, one of my greatest moments on campus involved Lou Henson.
I had the great fortune of meeting Lou when I was invited to be an honorary assistant coach. Amazingly it turned out to be the famous four-overtime game against Michigan.
I don’t know how I was so lucky, but I was serving as an academic adviser on campus at the time, and Lou had a program for every home game where selected faculty members would be invited to attend the pregame meal and to sit on the bench, more or less as a way of encouraging faculty support and involvement. It was the thrill of a lifetime for me, and Lou was very gracious.
But the truly amazing experience was the privilege of being able to watch him interact with his players and coach his team in person — and especially for a game so fraught with drama. FOUR OVERTIMES!!! And the Illini won, leaving Bill Frieder to head home with disappointment.
Years later, I had the chance briefly to say hi to Lou at another occasion, and he greeted me as if I were a close friend. To my complete astonishment, and without any prompting, he remembered me! He immediately recalled the fact that I was on the bench for the four-OT game.
After chatting for a few minutes during which I became convinced that he honestly did remember me, I parted from him absolutely amazed that, with so many encounters with such a countless number of people over the years, he actually could recall and greet me, a person whom he had met on one occasion decades earlier, so warmly and so knowledgeably. The fact that he remembered me was almost as much of a thrill as being on the bench that day at the Assembly Hall.
Dr. Stephen C. Shafer, Champaign
1. I have his desk and credenza in my office from when he first came here in 1975. They always had a department sale of items at the Great West Hall at Memorial Stadium where you could pick up furniture – and there it was.
2. In the 1990s, Matt George used to have Ace Leukemia Benefits at the Round Barn, with silent and live auctions.The first item was a Chicago Bulls basketball signed by B.J. Armstrong, Pete Myers and Scottie Pippen. Well, I hated the Bulls but this was Lou doing this so I thought I would help out and start the bidding to get it going thinking Coach would like that.
Coach: “Who will give me $200 for this ball?”
I raised my hand
Coach walks out to me and says ‘It’s Yours’ and left the building.
I was stuck with a $200 ball I could care less about. I told him that story later on he just loved it.
3. In 2014 I met up with Coach Mark Coomes at the Wisconsin football game and we visited about the old basketball days. I told Mark how much I admired Lou all these years and that I would like to go to New Mexico State and see Lou Henson Court. I ran into Mark again a few weeks later before an Illinois basketball game and said I was serious about that Las Cruces trip, but it wouldn’t be as much fun if Coach wasn’t down there to just say hello to. Coomes set up a meeting at Old Orchard. I told Lou I wanted to see Lou Henson Court in New Mexico State. He said: You and your brother pick a game, you come for the weekend and stay at our Bunk House on our property, we will take you to the finest Mexican place in town and we will go to the game (and he really didn’t even know me)!
On Dec. 6-8, my brother Rick and I were in Las Cruces. As promised we stayed in the Bunk House where Mary stocked the refrigerator and left a candy dish for us. Lou took us to eat at the Mexican restaurant, took us in the morning to his breakfast burritos place (where he told the guys upon introducing us that Rick and Gary spent $500 to come all the way from Champaign to see me and you guys can’t even buy me a cup of coffee!). He took us to the Pan Am Center and introduced us to the AD, and then Mary took us around town and ordered lunch. Oklahoma State football was on late in the afternoon against rival Oklahoma. Lou knocked on the Bunk House door and asked if he could join us to watch the game! We then went to the UTEP/NMST game where Lou took us into the UTEP locker room and introduced us to (UTEP coach) Tim Floyd. In between, we just talked sports. My brothers and I went to Kansas City to see him inducted to the College Hall of Fame shortly thereafter.
Nicer people than Lou and Mary Henson there is not. I think of that trip constantly.
Gary Cromwell, Sidney (PIC)
After I retired from my full-time career, I became a van driver for a C-U healthcare facility. At various times, Coach Henson needed the services provided by our facility. I was very fortunate to get to drive Coach (and Mary) to numerous area locations over the past couple of years.
Coach never treated me like I was ‘just a van driver.’ He was always gracious, friendly, caring and interested in learning about me and my family. I know there were many days when he wasn’t feeling well but he never failed to be cheerful, polite and appreciative for the minor service I provided. Simply stated, he was a class actand one of the nicest gentlemen I have ever known.
Every time I saw him he was sporting some kind of Illini clothing and I did the same on those days when I knew he would be riding in the van with me. We both enjoyed bantering about that day’s shirt, tie or coat selection. One day he offered to have his photo taken with me and I will treasure that picture forever.
RIP Coach. You had a positive impact on so many people. You will be missed.
Mick Howrey, Charleston
Our hearts are heavy but every time I see that orange coat, I smile. A tradition that continues today and hopefully will for many many more years. We will always have a part of Lou with us forever. Thank you just isn’t enough. You gave us so many great memories!
Sharon Pearson, Forsyth
A lot of people didn’t know it and I always kept it secret, but Lou would come to Walmart in Savoy every other day about 5 in the morning before going to the golf course to hang out and get veggies and whatever his wife wanted. He would always look for me to help him find things because he was in a hurry and I had been at that store since it opened.
When he and his wife went to New Mexico and came back I would go to his house and charge his battery in his caddy. He tried to pay me but I wouldn’t take his money. So he wanted to give me a pass to the basketball game and I turned that down because I liked to watch the game at home. So he was the one man that showed me what a classic man is.
Ronnie Campbell, Urbana
In my younger days I was employed at Festival Foods in Savoy. Coach would come in to buy fresh fruits and veggies. I got to speak to him on many occasions and talk Illini basketball, Nike camps in Indy, his love for the game of bridge and golf. I remember this day vividly as there was a plane crash (that claimed the life of John F. Kennedy, Jr., among others). Lou was in town over the summer. I was at the U of I driving range hitting some balls. He walked up behind me and said ‘Chris you have a very nice swing.’ It was Lou Henson and I was shocked that he remembered my name. He set up shop next to me and I bought an extra bucket of balls just so I could have a little more time next to the legend. Never forgot that day (July 16, 1999). Love that guy and will be deeply missed.
I played bridge with Lou several times at Ginger Creek. Some months ago Mary brought him over to play. At that time he was using a walker. I saw him being dropped off and went out to open the door for him. As he approached he stopped and said, ‘Young man, you’re doing a good job there.’ I said, ‘Thanks Coach. I found my calling.’ He paused for a few seconds, looked at me, smiled and said, ‘I’m still looking for mine’ and walked in the door.
Mike Helfer, Champaign
Lou and Mary, never failed to make a public appearance, when they could, sharing themselves with the greater Illini Nation.
I remember, about 10 years ago, Lou and Mary came down to Arthur as the honorary guests of the annual Arthur Cheese Festival (which somehow always seems to be on the hottest weekend of the summer). So in the middle of what had to be a 100-degree day, Lou and Mary stood outside, in the sun on black asphalt pavement cutting the ceremonial block of cheese, and then stayed for hours after to greet grateful fans and hand out free slices of cheeses to the crowd. They were both well into retirement, but were so kind, and genuinely grateful to have spent their afternoon in Arthur, with thousands of people that they had just met, but who Lou and Mary treated as if they were age old friends.
A couple years ago, I got pulled into what I thought was a business lunch at the Old Orchard Lanes in Savoy. As I walked in, I knew it was no ordinary lunch: Loren Tate, Lou, U of I Trustee Dave Dorris and several other old-timers were hanging out. Somehow the only open seat at the table was next to Lou, who had already largely finished up his lunch. As I sat down awestruck, I fumbled around trying to think of something to talk about. Next thing I knew, Lou reaches over, grabs my wrist, looks at me and asks, ‘Now what have you been up to?’ This was Lou: he could sit next to a complete stranger, and yet genuinely care about that person, their life, and want to know more about them.
Finally, my personal favorite story of Lou, occurred my senior year at the U of I. Myself and a handful of students got the great honor of delivering an official ‘thanks’ from the student body after Lou’s last home game at the Assembly Hall as head coach. As the game ended, we were led out to center court and Lou walked over, the other students had to do all the talking and official plaque presentations. All I had to do was hand him a gag gift (a $5 hairbrush that we had purchased at Jewel/Osco that afternoon and painted ‘Lou – ‘Do’ on it in red nail polish, a reference to his much commented upon hair cut). Too starstruck to perform up to expectation, I fumbled the hand-off to Lou and dropped the brush on live national TV. I was horrified. As I scurried about picking it up off the court floor, Lou, gracious as ever, chuckled to himself, then accepted it with a thanksand a smile.
Lou had a lot of great teams over the years, but his greatest teammates through it all were Mary – and their family. To Mary and the rest of the Henson family, thank you for sharing Lou with the rest of us all these years. We are all better for having known him.
Chapin Rose, Mahomet
When I was in college at U of I, the school had just celebrated 100 years of Illinois basketball.
Shortly thereafter, they announced a number of jerseys they were going to honor and hang at Assembly Hall. I decided to make it my mission to get every one of those players to sign a basketball. As part of it, I wanted to get the best Illinois coaches of all time to sign it as well.
So after I had collected a good number of autographs, I decided to go to Lou Henson’s house (it was pretty easy to find at the time), and I knocked on his door. His wife Mary answered. At first she seemed a little confused, but when she saw my basketball, and I explained why I was there, her and Lou could not have been nicer or more welcoming.
They invited me into their home, and Lou immediately signed my basketball. After that, they took me on a tour of the entire house, which included showing me all of Lou’s memorabilia he collected over the years dating to his high school days. Being someone who was very into memorabilia at the time (and the history of Illinois basketball) it was an experience that I will never forget. Seeing relics of times I didn’t even know about, and then all of the pieces from his career at Illinois, and hearing the corresponding stories from Lou Henson himself, was priceless.
Before I left, they not only offered me some snacks, but Mary went to a closet that had a bunch of Lou’s books. She pulled one out, and Lou then wrote a personal message to me and signed it. It is rare you meet people like the Hensons. The Illini were lucky to have Lou. The world was lucky to have Lou.
– J.J. Painter (PIC), Bloomington
I grew up in Champaign in the ‘80s and went to the U of I. Lou was more than our basketball coach, he was a role model for me that transcended sports to all aspects of my life. To see how he handled himself without swearing, how he handled bullies and how he handled adversity when his son died was truly inspirational. Lou and Mary have been inspirations in Champaign for many years and I’m proud to have come from the same community.
His Flying Illini team will forever be remembered for not just lifting the spirits of this 18-year-old during a tough time in my life but it lifted a city, a state and a large part of the country. Not many teams in college basketball history are remembered like that one.
Take a well-deserved Rest In Peace Lou. I’m sure he is up in heaven telling the angels how tough of an opponent the Devil is and how they will have to be at their very best to defeat him!
John Mulhall, Chicago
I am a member of a pretty motley golf group called the Brookhill Beach Buddies – in honor of our namesake and director, Ted Beach. This year, Ted’s daughter Becky added some quality, class and ability to play beyond our normal crew. We have an annual breakfast that Coach Lou has attended on occasion – the most recent of which was in the late fall of 2018.
Here’s the point: Always and with everyone I know regardless of what ‘condition his condition was in,’ Lou’s presence, his smile, his energy, his enthusiasm, his relate-ability and his wit were contagious. He lit up every place he landed because of who and how he was. To Mary, the wonderful other half of this partnership, and to the family – our thoughts and prayers are yours. RIP, Lou – it may be one of the only times you’ve ever ‘rested.’
Topper Steinman and the Brookhill Beach Buddies
Many years ago at basketball camp, a young man dived in the shallow end of the pool at Bromley Hall and was paralyzed. Coach and Mary went to see the young man and his family for many years.Their countless acts of kindness are absolutely wonderful!
Gary Thornton, Potomac
It was such a blessing to be head of the Alumni Association at a time when Lou Henson was our basketball coach. What a great team Lou and Mary were. Alway there for you.
I had the good fortune to join them on the flight to LSU in 1989 when we beat LSU. We won by 30 points and people came up to Lou and thanked him for not running up the score. Best game ever and I was on the end of the bench. Lou kept looking down to see who he could put in and I swear he thought about sending me. The LSU crowd applauded this amazing performance as did Coach Dale Brown, who was a good friend of Lou’s. The Flying Illini were amazing and went on to the Final Four. You want to become famous overnight? Be the alumni director and you find your alumni believe that you have 5,000 tickets available for the game. It was a passage that I will never forget. And yes, we should have won the big game.
Lou joined me on many occasions to speak to alumni. You have no idea how much that means to an alumni director to have a famous coach spread the good word about Illinois.
We had some fame when Stevie Jay featured Bill Mellberg on the radio every Friday on WDWS.
Bill was a friend of ours and of Lou and Mary. Every Friday, Bill ended his program with ‘Hi Lou and Hi Mare,’ from the Mary Tyler Moore show years ago. It was fun to be greeted around town with a ‘Hi Lou, Hi Mare.’
At Christmas in 2018, he and Mary were our guests for Christmas brunch at Allerton. We could only accommodate 100. We could have sold 500 seats to have brunch with Lou and Mary.
They were true ambassadors for our university. No one did it better.
We will miss him to be sure.
Lou and Mary Liay, Champaign
I was there on the day that Lou was first introduced as the new Illini coach to replace Gene Bartow. I was just a year out of school and working in town for University Extension. My mentor, Journalism Professor Dick Hildwein, who moonlighted as a photo stringer for United Press International, had called and asked me to cover a press conference on Saturday morning in the old Varsity Room in the southeast corner of Memorial Stadium.
So, I was in the room when Lou was introduced. The initial reaction from some of the Black players in attendance was, “Lou Who?” They of course did not know of his efforts to integrate college basketball in the South, and the more they listened to Lou talk, the more they warmed up to him. By the time the press conference was over, everybody in the room was on board.
I processed my film, made some B&W prints and transmitted them to UPI. My wife and I had plans to attend a party in DeKalb that evening, so we drove north and spent the evening there. The next morning, I was greeted by my photos of Lou (complete with photo credits) displayed prominently in both Chicago papers, which was pretty exciting. That kind of restarted my photojournalism career. I would later go on to work for UPI in their Springfield bureau, and in the late 1970s I would regularly return to the Assembly Hall to cover Lou’s teams.
From 1981 through ‘88 while teaching Photojouralism, I was also the primary photographer for what used to be called the U of I Athletic Association, now the DIA. I covered all of Lou’s games in the Assembly Hall, as well as many road games. My photographs graced the program covers, the schedule cards and sometimes the large schedule posters. When Lou’s book was published, I was honored that he chose one of my photos for the cover.
I was on the floor when the assigned referees were snowbound, and the Christmas eve home game was played with local high school refs recruited from the stands. I was in Rupp Arena when the Illini were badly homered by the refs in the NCAA tournament and lost the game to a Kentucky team that they had outplayed. Lou was a gentleman afterward.
I remember the disappointment of the Austin Peay NCAA game in Connecticut and had to sit next to Bruce Douglas on the plane on the way home. Bruce and his teammates were still in shock that the guy shooting ugly two-hand push shots from his belly kept making three-pointers. A more joyous moment on the road with Lou was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, when the Illini beat Iowa to earn Lou his 400th coaching victory. There was a message on the blackboard to mark the occasion There would be hundreds of more victories after that.
When Lou was honored with the naming of the court in the State Farm Center, I was back on the floor to take photos of Lou and Mary taking in all the love.
Mike Smeltzer, Champaign (PICS)
Lou would invite one faculty member to be bench coach at home games. I was fortunate to be selected, including lunch with the team (Lou introduced me and spent time visiting about our department and faculty input), team meeting before the game (chalk talk), and a seat behind the bench (I could hear the comments and strategies). It was the best seat in the house when Andy Kaufmann hit the three-pointer at the end of the game in front of the bench A perfect ending to a perfect job as bench coach’
In January 1977, I was a freshman at the U of I. After the Illini basketball team upset Ohio State in Columbus on a Thursday evening, I decided to call the Indiana ticket office the following day to see if I could get tickets to the U of I vs. IU game that was on Saturday. As IU was coming off their undefeated national championship season and was always sold out I was certain I would be told that there weren’t any tickets available. I was shocked when I was told that they had three tickets and I could pick them up at Will Call before the game.
I drove over on Saturday with a friend and his dad and we picked up the tickets and entered IU’s Assembly Hall an hour before the game. We were shocked when we found our seats were down at floor level in the bleachers about 15 rows up behind the basket. It wasn’t long, however, before the IU pep band came in and we discovered our seats were the row behind the band; definitely obstructed view seats that they probably only sold to clueless visitors like us.
As we went to walk around the arena before the game, the path from our seats took us right by the door of the Illini locker room, where Lou was standing in his orange coat. We said hi and congratulated him on the win at Ohio State. Lou thanked us and instantly began to review the OSU game, ’We played the good defense, battled on the boards. They had good speed and quickness but we fought hard and got the win.’
We wished Lou good luck and told him we would try to cheer the Illini but we doubted we would be heard as we were in the row behind the IU band. Lou immediately said, ‘Let me see if I can do something about that,’ as he disappeared into the Illini locker room. About a minute later he emerged with three tickets in his hand and said, ‘I think these seats might be a little better.’
They were, as we sat in the row behind the Illini bench and got to see everything from Bobby Knight clad in a plaid coat conversing with Lou before the game to the rough and tumble game itself from a front row seat.
While the game did not go well for the Illini, Lou created an unforgettable memory for us. I can’t imagine many college basketball coaches in the moments before a big game extending that attention and kindness to total strangers who were wearing the school colors. Lou was one of a kind.
John Weaver, Urbana
In the fall of 1979, my good friend John Krouse and I were in fifth grade at Bottenfield Elementary and had an assignment to go interview someone in the community and write an article for our school newspaper. Being huge Illini fans we both thought it would be great to interview someone like Lou Henson. The Illini were coming off a season where we witnessed Eddie Johnson hit the game-winner against Magic Johnson and Michigan State, and we had high hopes for the coming season.
My 10-year-old self was incredibly nervous as I mustered up the courage to call Lou’s home. Somehow I managed to explain who we were and what our assignment was and whether or not he’d be willing to meet with us for an interview. He immediately agreed, and invited us to stop by a practice later that week and that we could talk there. So later that week my friend and I headed over to the Assembly Hall during an Illini practice. We sat and watched for a few minutes before getting the coach’s attention. Coach Henson came up into the stands and sat with us for close to 10 minutes. I remember awkwardly holding our cheap microphone connected to our cassette player/recorder and going through our long script of questions. Lou answered every one of them, just like we were reporters from The News-Gazette or Sports Illustrated. I remember how he put us at ease, joked around a bit with us, but most importantly treated us like we were meant to be there. We left that meeting on cloud nine and ended up writing a great piece for the school paper.
The interaction with him in that moment is something that has stuck with me for over 40 years. I had kept that cassette recording for many, many years and listened to it once in a while. At some point during my many moves I eventually lost it. As I look back, I realize not every coach would take the time to sit with a couple of nervous 10-year-old kids who didn’t know much about interviews, but Coach Henson did and he made quite the impression on us that day. What will always stick with me about Lou Henson is his kindness, his warm nature and his love of the game and willingness to share that with anyone. That’s how I will always remember him.
Jason Davis, Lake Worth, Fla.
It’s early 1995, and it’s become obvious that Coach Henson’s time as Illinois basketball coach was coming to an end. The vultures were circling, and I couldn’t believe some of the vile, angry and selfish things being said about the man. Had they already forgotten what he’d done for us? Ah, yes, the old ‘what have you done for me lately’ syndrome.
I was angry and, for the first time in my life, was ashamed to be an Illini fan. So I sat down and wrote a letter to the editor. In it I scolded those self-absorbed ‘fans,’ and reminded them of the countless wonderful memories that Coach Henson’s teams had given us. More importantly, I pointed out how the man had always conducted himself with grace and dignity. He was unwavering in victory, in defeat, and even during times of unspeakable tragedy. There has never been a finer representative of the game, the university, the community, and the state.
Knowing that the letter, if printed, might be edited, I sent a copy to Coach Henson c/o his Assembly Hall office. So that was that. I’d gotten it off my chest and I felt better for it. But that wasn’t the end of it.
A few days later I received a package. In it was a copy of Coach Henson’s book « Winning at Illinois » with a short, handwritten thank you note inside the front cover. Never one to put himself first, the note began ‘Mary & I.’ Boy, did I feel special! At the age of 41, I felt much like I had, as a 12-year-old, when Billy Williams sent me an autographed picture of himself. But wait! There’s more!
A few days after that I received a letter in the mail from someone I didn’t know. I thought it must be a mistake but, since I was curious and it was addressed to me, I opened it. It was from Coach Henson’s youngest daughter, Leigh Anne. Apparently, she had originally sent it to my old address and it had been returned. She then took the time to find my new address, put it in another envelope, and re-mail it. I was impressed. She had seen my letter and wanted to thank me for the kind words. But there was also a tinge of sadness in what she wrote. Kind words about her father were few and far between at the time, and she was hurt by some of the things being said. I hadn’t thought of that. How terrible it must be to hear such awful and unfair things said about someone you know and love. And just like that, I was special again. Somewhat selfishly, I was proud that I had perhaps provided a tiny ray of sunshine during what had to be a very difficult time. And for people I didn’t know, no less. Of course, by now I felt like I’d become part, even in a small way, of a wonderful family. Some people have that gift, I guess.
Sadly, I lost Billy’s picture long ago, but I still Have Coach Henson’s book and Leigh Anne’s letter. How special they are! So thanks to both of you for making me feel special. I just wish it hadn’t taken 25 years for me to say it.
William Crouch, Mahomet
For many years, the Illini Caravan came to Bloomington, and it was a pleasure hosting the group each summer. One year I made the mistake of wearing a black and white striped dress, and Lou kept saying, ‘Why do you have that on? You remind me of the refs!’
During Deon Thomas’ collegiate career, I was fortunate to be an Honorary Coach at the Northwestern game in Evanston in 1991. I was included in almost everything and totally enthralled. Listening to the pregame coaches’ discussion, hearing the locker room strategies before the game with the players, sitting on the bench during the game by one of the managers as he kept track of the number of fouls each referee called, being in the huddle during timeouts, and taking part in the halftime coaches’ huddle outside the locker room were all part of my experience. As we huddled at halftime, Lou asked if anyone on Northwestern was in foul trouble, and after none of the assistant coaches offered anything, I piped up and said ‘No. 55 has two fouls.’ Lou looked at me and said ‘OK.’ After the Illini won the game 91-81, Lou came over and said I could coach anytime!
Debbie Babcock, Bloomington (PIC)
I was visiting my family in New Mexico and stopped by to see Coach Henson at New Mexico State University. It was a thrill to talk with him and we took a picture in front of his plaques congratulating him on 700 wins. When I got back to Iowa I sent him a nice thank you note and he in turn sent me a note back that said ‘Michael — I ruined your picture! I’ll see you next summer — Lou.’ And he enclosed a picture from the University of Illinois in which he signed it: ‘Michael — Good Luck! Lou Henson.’ So as a fan of this terrific coach and great man I was sure excited to have these pictures that I have in my home today!
Michael Edmonds, Muscatine, Iowa (PIC)
In September 2003, Coach Henson actually called me at home when I was pregnant with my son, Shaun. When he said it was Coach Henson I didn’t believe him. I thought it was someone pretending to be him. After hearing his voice for the second time I knew it was him. I hollered ‘OMG’ it is Coach Henson! We talked for over 20 minutes. This call was about a month after he was diagnosed with non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Later, Coach, Mary and I talked several times on the phone, exchanging pictures, Christmas cards and I received an autograph copy of his book.
One thing I regret is Coach invited me to his house when I was in the area to get my Illini basketball signed. I never did take advantage of this incredible opportunity mainly because of my anxiety. I did have plenty of dreams about my boys playing basketball in Coach Henson’s driveway while him drawing up basketball plays. Anyway, this diehard Lou Henson and Illini fan will never forget this day picking up the phone and the legendary coach was on the other end.
Carol Last, Edwardsville