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A legend takes wing

Lou Henson dies at 88, created a desert dynasty

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Legendary NMSU and Illinois Basketball Coach Lou Henson died Saturday, July 25. He was 88. 

He coached at NMSU from 1966-75 and 1997-2005. He was one of only four NCAA coaches with 200-plus victories at multiple schools. The courts at both NMSU and Illinois bear his name. Henson was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015 and was Big 10 coach of the year in 1993.

This year marked the 50th anniversary of Henson’s leading the Aggies to the 1970 Final Four. He leaves behind legions of fans and friends.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column originally ran in February 2016)

By Richard Coltharp

Over consecutive weekends here along Interstate 10, universities honored legendary basketball coaches.

On Jan. 30, New Mexico State University honored longtime Aggie coach Lou Henson. And on Feb. 6, the University of Texas-El Paso honored longtime Miner coach Don Haskins and the 50th anniversary of his 1966 national championship team, back when the school was known as Texas Western. That championship was significant because it was the first time a team started five African-Americans during a title game. Fate helped make the game more historic by pitting the Miners against an all-white Kentucky squad.

Under the respective leadership of Henson and Haskins, the two programs flourished in the mid-1960s and into the early 1970s. Henson led the Aggies to the Final Four in 1970.

How did these two programs gain national prominence in that time, operating from an isolated spot in the desert?

Primarily because these two coaches cared more about the size of a player’s heart than the color of his skin, and they actively recruited black and Hispanic players.

Henson and Haskins grew up about 180 miles from each other in Oklahoma, a state with a checkered past when it comes to race relations. My hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, saw one of the nation’s worst race riots in 1921, and has been battling uphill ever since. I grew up in the state in the 1970s and 80s when racial prejudice was as common as bass fishing. That said, Oklahoma is also home to some of the most genuine, good-hearted, hard-working souls I’ve ever known, people who care more about a person’s inside than the outside. Count Henson and Haskins in that latter group.

When Henson took his first head college coaching position in 1962 at Hardin-Simmons in Abilene, Texas, he did so only after the school said they would allow him to recruit African-Americans.

Haskins was doing the same at Texas Western.

During this period, the big schools of the Southeast Conference and the Southwest Conference and many colleges, primarily in the South, refused to integrate their teams. In the Northeast and the West, integration came more readily, as did basketball championships. The University of San Francisco, with black stars Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, won back-to-back titles in 1955 and 1956. John Wooden, at UCLA, won 10 championships in 12 years from 1964-75, with several key black players, the greatest being Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), who was a nemesis for Henson and the Aggies. The Aggies made the NCAA tournament in 1968 and 1969, only to get knocked out each year by Alcindor and the Bruins, who went on to win it all. And when Alcindor was gone, in 1970, the Aggies made the Final Four, but once again were ousted from the tournament by Wooden’s UCLA team.

Even though it’s been 50 years now since the Miners won their title, and 44 years since the Aggies were in the Final Four, the leadership of Haskins and Henson, and the efforts of those pioneering players left an indelibly positive impact on the two programs and, I believe, our communities.

One of Haskins’ protégé’s was El Paso’s own Nolan Richardson. Richardson, who is African-American, finished his UTEP playing career before the 1966 team, but went on to become a Hall of Fame coach himself, winning a national Junior College title with Western Texas College, an NIT title with Tulsa and an NCAA title with Arkansas, one of those very late-to-integrate schools.

The Aggie men’s basketball team has now had four African-American coaches, incuding Marvin Menzies, who is working toward his sixth NCAA appearance in seven years.

We should be proud of the foundation Coach Henson built under our Pan Am parquet floor, and of Menzies and others who have carried it on.

And even though it’s difficult for Aggie fans to be positive about the Miners, we should be proud too of our neighbors in the Rio Grande Valley.