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A few years ago, a friend of mine who isn’t a basketball fan asked me “Why is Lou Henson such a big deal? I mean, he and his wife are super nice and great in the community, but I don’t know the history. Help me out.”
Having been a college basketball fan since I was 8, and having known about Henson’s exploits for years (I even went to college with his daughter, Lisa, at Oklahoma State), I tried to figure out the best approach.
When I remembered my friend was a Dallas Cowboys fan, my path became clear.
“OK,” I said. “Do you know who Tom Landry is?”
“Duh, of course I know who Tom Landry is,” my friend replied.
“Well, think of Lou Henson as the Tom Landry of New Mexico State basketball,” I said. “And think of the Final Four as the Super Bowl of college hoops.”
“OK,” my friend said. “That makes sense.”
As Landry did with the Cowboys, Henson put NMSU Aggie basketball on the national map. Like Landry, Henson reinvented himself and his teams according to the talent and skills of the players. Like Landry, Henson never had more than a couple of bad years in a row. Like Landry, Henson had the respect of his players.
Unlike the famously stoic Landry, however, Henson had a smile and a kind word for everyone, whether it was the opposing team, the media or the people selling popcorn at the concession stand.
After we learned of Coach Henson’s passing last week, we ran a front-page photo, published several things about him on our website, and devoted two pages to him in this week’s edition, I hadn’t planned on writing my column this week about Lou.
But I’ve read so much, remembered so much, and talked with so many people the past several days, I am appreciating anew all the things he did, and realizing how rare he was, a personality and heart we could sure use more of these days.
“Nice guys finish last,” was the bitter – and inaccurate – mantra of longtime Major League Baseball manager Leo Durocher.
Lou Henson finished first many times during his long career, but before anyone mentions his 779 career victories, they consistently mention what a nice, kind and upbeat person he was.
The world today, including the sports world, is vastly different from the era of Henson and Landry.
At the end of his fourth season, in 1963, Landry’s record as the only coach the expansion Cowboys had ever had, was 13-38. If any NFL coach these days went 13-38 over four years, well, they probably wouldn’t have made it to a fifth year. The Cowboys’ owner, however, signed Landry to a 10-year contract extension. Ten years. That was unheard of then, and even more so now. Landry rewarded the confidence with 20 straight winning seasons, 13 division titles, 5 conference titles, and two Super Bowl victories.
Like Landry and the Cowboys’ brain trust, Henson had an eye for talent, and not just for basketball.
When the Pan American Center opened in 1968, Henson recommended a young Barbara Hubbard to run the facility. It was a big job, the type not given to women in those days. If you’ve ever attended a concert at the Pan Am, however, you basically have “Mother Hubbard” to thank.
In 1962, when interviewing for his first college head coaching job, in Abilene, Texas, Henson gave Hardin-Simmons University an ultimatum: I won’t take the job unless you agree to integrate the school and allow me to recruit African-American players.
When he arrived at New Mexico State in 1966, he continued recruiting black players, as well as Hispanics. When Henson hired his former Aggie player Rob Evans as an assistant coach in 1969, he was one of only a handful of black assistants in the country at the time.
In everything he did, it seemed, this coach from small-town Oklahoma was ahead of his time.
Henson’s first superstar was an inner-city player from Syracuse, New York: Jimmy Collins. Together, Henson, Collins and some other great players made it all the way to the 1970 Final Four.
But what does Collins remember more than the basketball success? How Lou Henson helped him become a man.
“He was there when I needed him,” Collins said. “We all have guardian angels, whether we recognize them or not. I was lucky enough to recognize my guardian angel, and it was Coach Henson.”