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REMEMBERING LOU HENSON

‘Actions of kindness’: Players, colleagues, coaches recall a legend

Fans, friends remember Lou

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JIMMY COLLINS

NMSU all-century team

Leading scorer of the 1970 Final Four team

Assistant coach under Henson at University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, 1983-96

Head coach at University of Illinois-Chicago, 1996-2010

First round draft pick of the 1970 Chicago Bulls

“It’s like losing a guardian angel,” said Collins, a 6-2 guard from Syracuse, who averaged 24.3 points a game for the 1969-70 Aggies. “It started back in 1966 and I’m sure it will continue until I leave this life.

“We didn’t go long periods without talking. I’d call him or he’d call me. He seemed to have a sixth sense. Every time in life I would stumble, or I would have some turmoil, the phone would ring, and it would be him.

“The last few years, I knew he was very ill, and sometimes he wouldn’t be able to talk. But I would talk with Mary, who was as much a part of developing our program as he was.

“There are things as a young man, that are minor conflicts, but as you get older, you realize those conflicts were positives that made me not only a better basketball player, but a better person.

“He pulled me back into basketball, working with him at Illinois as an assistant coach, and then helping me land the job at the University of Illinois-Chicago (where he was head coach for 14 seasons).

“I was raised by a single mom, with no father in the picture, and most of the things that guide me in my life, I got those ideas from him.

Perhaps it was a fitting day, the last conversation they had was on June 21.

“He called me on Father’s Day and you wouldn’t have known he was ill. We had a great conversation.

“From now on, I know I will hear his voice in my head, with something to help me or show me a way to help others.”

BARBARA HUBBARD

“Mother Hubbard”

Longtime manager of Pan American Center

“I can’t tell you how much the reign of Lou Henson meant to me,” Hubbard said. “We started on the ground floor with him at the Pan American Center.

“Lou and I started out together at Las Cruces High School. He was the basketball coach, and I ran the cheerleaders. And when he came back to coach NMSU, Lou and I stayed together all the way through. I also ran the NMSU cheerleaders for about 20 years.

“When they opened the new arena, Lou called me over to run the Pan Am, and I became the first woman business manager on campus.”

She went on to earn an international reputation for landing and booking musical and entertainment acts to play the Pan Am. Despite all the celebrities who befriended her and called her “Mother Hubbard,” she always cherished those early Pan Am basketball days.

“Lou was one of the winningest coaches of all time, and I was so proud to go to the Final Four in 1970 with the team and the cheerleaders. Getting to ride that glory with him has been a part of my life ever since.

“And now I’m going to be making a donation to the Boys and Girls Club of Las Cruces for him and Mary.”

BILLY KEYS

Aggie player 1998-2000

Former international professional player

Current associate head coach at Northern New Mexico College

NMSU all-century team

“He was a class act,” said Keys, who played under Henson at NMSU. “He was pure, he was honest and he was a genius when you talk about Xs and Os. The thing was, he kept things simple. He took a bunch of guys who were thrown together, and we accomplished some great things. (In the 1998-99 season, while competing in the Big West, the Aggies were regular season and tournament conference champs, and made it to the NCAAs.)

“He didn’t curse, and he rarely raised his voice, but you didn’t want to let him down. He respected you as a man, and so you had to respect him for that. He never had an altercation with a player.

“When I retired from my professional career and he found out I wanted to get into coaching, he said, ‘Who can I call? Let’s go to breakfast.’ And so we went to breakfast at Burger Time and he got napkins out and started drawing up plays.”

WILLIAM BENJAMIN

NMSU all-century team

Aggie player from 1988-92

Current head coach, Las Cruces High School boys’ basketball

Though he did not play for Coach Henson or even know him that well, William Benjamin had several positive interactions with the coach.

“I remember all of his actions were actions of kindness,” Benjamin said. “He invited me and my family one year to join him and his wife at their table at the Boys and Girls Club Breakfast. They were both so attentive and gracious. And when we won the state championship in 2013, I called him and asked if he would come and speak at our banquet, and he did so without hesitation.”

That 2013 title was the first Las Cruces High School boys state championship since 1976, when Lou Henson Jr. was a standout player on back-to-back Bulldawg state title teams. Previously, Lou Henson Sr. had coached LCHS to three consecutive state titles 1959-61. LCHS won again this year, meaning if Benjamin coaches the Bulldawgs to another state title, he will tie Henson for the school record for most titles as a coach.

GARREY CARRUTHERS

NMSU graduate

Former New Mexico governor

Former NMSU chancellor

“I met him just as they opened the Pan Am. It was the ‘House that Henson Built.’ He was a special guy. Everybody loved him, he was so sincere and genuine and he and his wife, Mary, were such contributors to the community. I can’t think of a better example than him of what it means to be a great Aggie.

“There are very few icons in New Mexico, and even fewer in Las Cruces, but one was Lou Henson. And he had such a wonderful sense of humor.

“When I applied to be president of NMSU, Lou Henson essentially decided to be my campaign manager. He took it upon himself to call people and speak on my behalf. When the regents met to decide, the vote was 3-2 in my favor over Dan Howard, who became our provost.

“I knew Coach Henson often met for breakfast with friends at Burger Time. So shortly after the vote I went to Burger Time and, sure enough, he came in. I said, ‘Coach, I came here to fire you as my campaign manager. With your campaigning, I only got the vote by 3-2.’ Then Lou looked at me and said, ‘Well, it was 0-5 when I started.’

“He’s one of the most magnificent persons I’ve ever met.”

RUS BRADBURD

Former NMSU assistant coach

Author and current associate professor of creative writing at NMSU  

 “Nearly everyone as successful as Lou innately has a big ego,” Bradburd said. “I think Lou believed he was a good coach, but he would never say that. He was very much a big-picture guy and was very interested in how people were going to be in the long run.

“Lou accomplished enough to be called a legend, but he didn’t want to set himself up that way. He was more of an everyman, ‘We’re all in this together in building the program.’

“He never said to his team, ‘Don’t swear.’ But his players didn’t swear because that was his lead.

“When he went to coach at Illinois, he helped turn the program around with an idea that shouldn’t have been novel. He said, ‘We’re at Illinois. Let’s recruit Illinois kids.’

“Watching him after all those years of being a decent human, I think we can all take strength from his humility and his grace.”

JACK NIXON

Longtime radio voice of the Aggies

Member, Aggie Hall of Fame

“Of course, he knew a lot about basketball and won a lot of games and went to the Final Four and all that, but the things that come to mind first when I think about Coach is how kind he was and how positive he was,” Nixon said. “He enjoyed having fun with life, and when we were traveling, he was light-hearted. He took winning very seriously, but he didn’t let a loss eat at him. He was so positive and good-hearted, you just felt really good around him.”

Lou Henson