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Hall needs Henson more than Henson needs the Hall


Here are some comparative baseball stats for two players. Hits: 2,369 vs. 2,365; batting avg.: .276 vs. .285; home runs: 244 vs. 185; RBI: 1,084 vs. 1,003; runs: 1,386 vs. 1,231; fielding: .984 vs. .977; Gold Gloves: 3 vs. 5; Wins Above Replacement (WAR): 75.1 vs. 70.7; All-Star appearances: 5 vs. 6; Rookie of the Year: 1 vs. 0; World Series victories: 1 vs. 1.

One of those players is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the other is not. Objectively, if one is in, both should be in, I believe, based on the similarity of the numbers. Neither one has the “automatic” shoo-in stats, such as 3,000 hits or multiple MVP awards. However, both represent outstanding bodies of work. These contemporaries and teammates entered the league together in 1978 and played side by side, second base and shortstop, for 18 seasons with the Detroit Tigers, by far the longest running double-play combo in history. Both were good citizens on and off the field.

The stats listed second belong to shortstop Alan Trammell, who wore No. 3, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2018. The stats listed first belong to second baseman Lou Whitaker, who wore No. 1, and has not gotten a whiff of the Hall. Whitaker is my all-time favorite Tiger. I love Tram, but the two should have gone in together. They were often known as a unit: Tramaker. They played 18 years and were just four hits apart. Wild.

Enough baseball talk. I’m writing on behalf of another Lou snubbed by his sport’s Hall of Fame.

Yes, I’m talking about the great New Mexico State University (and University of Illinois) basketball coach Lou Henson, who recently was nominated for a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Yes, Lou is a member of the Aggie Hall of Fame. And he’s a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame. However, he has yet to earn the sport’s highest honor. We will know in March. If he makes it, the honor will be bittersweet, since Coach passed away in July.

I’ve been writing a column in the Bulletin for 10 years. There are two topics I’ve written about multiple times. One is about the amazing generosity and charitable energy of the people of Las Cruces. The other is how Lou Henson should be in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

Henson’s key credentials follow. Of 41 full seasons coaching Division I basketball, he had losing records in only three of them. That totals to 779 victories and a win percentage of 65.4. He is the winningest coach at two different universities: NMSU and Illinois. He took both teams to the Final Four, with a 19-year spread in between, which speaks to his longevity and staying power.

Henson’s greatness as a coach should be unquestioned. (For a little local fun, remember Henson’s first head coaching job was for Las Cruces High School, and he won three state titles in four seasons.) However, as great a coach as he was, he was an even better human being.

One of Henson’s college coaching contemporaries was Bobby Knight. Both coached across five decades in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. They were Big Ten rivals for many years while Knight coached at Indiana and Henson was at Illinois. On the scoreboard, Knight was more successful. He had five Final Fours compared to Henson’s two. Plus, Knight had three national championships, and was elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1991, four years after he won his third title. Knight also coached the 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist basketball team. I’m certain that if Henson had won a national championship, he’d already be in the Hall.

However, when people think of Knight now, they are as likely to think of his angry antics and tirades as they are his basketball success. The many abusive comments and actions by Knight recorded on video and audio are probably just the tip of the iceberg even if only a portion of the non-recorded allegations are true. His chaos ultimately cost him his job at Indiana.

Henson was the anti-Knight. There may or may not be a recording somewhere of Henson saying “dang.” He was remembered for being kind to teachers, students and officials.

He and his wife, Mary, had huge, positive impacts on the communities around both the University of Illinois, where he coached for 21 years, and NMSU, where he coached for 16 full seasons. At his first college coaching job, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, Henson took the post only on the condition the school would let him integrate the previously all-white basketball program. That was pretty nervy for a guy who had only coached high school, applying for a job in Texas in 1962.

When at NMSU, Henson treated the Pan American Center custodians with the same high respect he showed the university presidents. Most important was the legacy he left among his players.

Last February, when members of the Aggies’ 1970 Final Four team returned to Las Cruces to celebrate the 50th anniversary, the players spoke about Henson with reverence. They didn’t talk a word about Henson’s defensive strategies or his offensive schemes.

They talked about how Coach Lou Henson made them better men.

Richard Coltharp