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Former Illini Coach Lou Henson Chosen For Collegiate Hall Of Fame

Coach Lou Henson with Nick Anderson and Kenny Battle after the 83-69 win over Louisville

Coach Lou Henson walks from the court hand in hand with players Nick Anderson, right, and Kenny Battle, following their 83-69 victory over Louisville in the Metrodome, March 25, 1989. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Lou Henson, the winningest coach in Fighting Illini history, will be part of the 2015 class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. 

The U of I's Division of Intercollegiate Athletics made the announcement in a press release Tuesday afternoon.  Henson's career spanned 41 years at three schools, but most notably earned 423 wins in his 21-years helming the Fighting Illini. 

His 1984 team won the Big Ten Championship and advanced to the Elite Eight.  His most successful season came with the 88-89 team, when the Flyin' Illini won a then-school record 31 games and advanced to the 1989 NCAA Final Four, falling to Michigan in the National Semifinals.  Henson ranks 5th all-time among Big Ten coaches in both total wins and conference wins (214.)

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, the 83-year old Henson cited recruitment efforts within the state among the high points in his career.  He said he knew that early on, the team wouldn't win for a while, but staff built relationships within Illinois.

"Our goal was to go into over 400 high schools the first year," he said.  "And we did that and even more.  We had a good relationship, and that's how we started getting good players. And as everybody knows, the Final Four team - all of them were from the state of Illinois.  So if you try to pick out a game, it would be hard to pick one outstanding game.  We had a lot of them."

But he said teams prior to 1989 were nearly as talented, including a 1984 Illini squad that won the Big Ten Championship and advanced to the Elite Eight.

“That team had a chance to win the national title," he said.  "Now we’re going to back up to the 1988 team.  That team, we had all of those (guys) back, and we had a 12 point lead on Villanova, and we missed five free throws and they beat us.  That team could have been to the Final Four, and maybe won it.  The 89 team was probably the best team in the country.  And we had entries in the regionals, and we had one player that didn’t even work out that week.  Michigan played great, but the 88-89 team, that was one of the best teams to play at Illinois.  Or anyplace else.”

Henson also coached at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas and New Mexico State prior to his time at the U of I.  After his retirement, he returned to New Mexico State, working on the sidelines, leading the Aggies for seven more years.  Overall, Henson won 779 games, ranking 16th on the all-time NCAA wins list, and 11th all-time among coaches with at least 10 years spent in Division 1.

It's at Hardin-Simmons, in Abilene, Texas, that his proudest moment came. 

He was a high school coach in New Mexico in the early 1960’s when he was interviewed at Hardin-Simmons, a school that had never had African-American players.

A search committee offered Henson the coaching job, but he told them he would only take it if the team was integrated.

“Would you believe the Trustees met the next day – and after about a 2-hour decision, they decided to integrate the team," he said.  "So that’s the thing that we’re most proud of is what we did to integrate them – and of course, it was a tough time back then, because we couldn’t feed the team in restaurants.”

The Hall of Fame induction will be Nov. 20 at the Arvest Bank Theatre in Kansas City.  The other seven inductees include former Indiana University player and Indiana Pacers player Quinn Buckner, as well as former Ohio State and Boston Celtics star John Havlicek.