Lou Henson, Godfather of Modern Illini Athletics, Passes Away


lou henson

Lou Henson was the El Pedrino, “The Godfather,” of modern University of Illinois athletics. If you’re a generation X or younger Illini, then you already know how Henson is the Illini legend of all legends in modern sports. Sadly, we lost the Godfather today, as he passed away at the age of 88.

A private graveside service was held with family members earlier today (Wednesday) in Champaign. “It is a sad day for the Illinois Basketball family and Illini Nation as we mourn the passing of Lou Henson, the greatest coach in our program’s proud history,” reads a statement attributed to Illinois Basketball Coach Brad Underwood.

“His achievements are legendary, but what is immeasurable are the countless lives he impacted during his 21 years in Champaign and 41 years in coaching. Rest in peace to the best to ever wear the orange jacket; we’ll miss you Coach.”

Red Grange, Dick Butkus and George Halas all have their place in the pantheon, but Illinois is a basketball school, and both the home court, and the street which bisects the two revenue sport home venues bare his honorary namesake. 

At age 86, Henson was inducted into the second class of the Illinois Athletics Hall of Fame Friday night, with a black tie gala at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 2018.

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We had an exclusive with the Illini sports Godfather on Father’s Day weekend of that year, and it follows below.

“This is really outstanding. it’s great to be here as one of the best,” Henson told The Sports Bank.

Henson is the winningest coach at both New Mexico State (they named the court after him as well) and Illinois. Lou Henson went 423-224 during his 21-year-stay in Champaign, reaching the NCAA Tournament a dozen times, and winning 20 games on 11 occasions.

nick anderson illini basketball lou henson

“This is great, a great honor, but having the court named after me that was super (too),” said Henson who currently lives in Champaign, and swims regularly at Bromley Hall on campus.

He owns a tuxedo, but wore an orange sport coat instead to the gala, and that’s exactly how it should be. 

“This is my trademark,” Henson told me before then articulating the story of where he would get his orange clothing. He also explained how navy blue used to be the primary color at U of I, but how and why it got supplanted by orange.

Henson is fifth all-time among Big Ten coaches in wins (423) and league wins (214). He’s also just one of 14 coaches to lead two different teams to the Final Four. This is the fourth different Hall of Fame that’s inducted Lou Henson, as the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame honored him in 2015. 

lou henson

In all, Henson won 779 games; ranking 24th on the all-time NCAA wins list, and 15th all-time among coaches with at least 10 years spent in Division I. He is one of 13 coaches in NCAA history to record 200-plus wins at two DI schools.

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Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly contributes to WGN TVSports IllustratedChicago Now and SB Nation.

You can follow Banks, a former writer for Chicago Tribune.comon Twitter and his cat on Instagram.

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