Lou Henson was a good man who was damned good at what he did. His accomplishments and the esteem of all who knew him will live on and continue inspiring others.
Lou was modest about his courage in risking the opportunity, saying he knew they really wanted him. But the fact that they really wanted him – a young man who hadn’t coached a college team – tells us that he was recognized early as special.
Integrating meant recruiting in the southern U.S. in years when civil rights workers were being killed. A white outsider associating with blacks in some Mississippi burg was sometimes in physical danger. Lou experience isn’t irrelevant to contemporary discussions of black and white. He was no crusader, and of course he was trying to coach better basketball teams; but he had courage and he cared. He also changed many lives.
I met Lou when I got here in 1969. Soon I was working part-time for him.
I was also one of the most visible campus radicals, agitating for black-white equality (on which he surely agreed) and peace (which he likely didn’t). When an outraged NMSU vice-president called Lou to ask “why are we paying that radical?” Lou asked his then top assistant, Ed Murphy, “What’s Pete doing for us these days?” Ed told him. Lou asked if I was doing a good job, and when Ed said I was, Lou politely told the VP to live with it. Lou was not going to fire one of his people, even a minor one, for speaking his mind.
A small matter. And no one was going to argue with Lou, who had taken NMSU to the Final Four; but at the time, as part of an embattled campus minority fighting for change, I sure appreciated his attitude.
Lou was incredibly focused. Murph used to say that if someone took Lou to a play, Lou diagrammed plays on the playbill.
Friends of Lou’s and mine say he was similar at the bridge table. One friend said this week, “He was always the perfect, congenial gentleman. Everyone who played as his partner enjoyed it and he enjoyed playing with as many different people as he could. His Bridge was a little above average. His memory wasn't what it once was but the competitive spirit was as strong as ever; always trying to learn from every hand.”
“He did kvetch about the pay in his day versus the astronomical salaries many coaches now command,“ the friend added. Another friend said Lou was “thoroughly a gentleman and a true human being who had a real interest in whatever person he engaged in conversation.”
About seven years ago I got to talk with Lou for an hour on radio. It was a delight to gas with him about old times; and he was, as always, incredibly gracious.
Few attain Lou’s level of professional success. Even fewer also make the world a better place.
– 30 –
[The above column appeared this morning, Sunday, 2 August 2020, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, as well as on the newspaper's website and on KRWG's website. A radio commentary based on it will air during the week both on KRWG and on KTAL, 101.5 FM (https://www.lccommunityradio.org/), and will be available later on KRWG's site under Local Viewpoints and on KTAL's under "Archives."]
[I arrived here just in time to experience the excitement on campus as the Aggies, in their most successful season ever, reached the Final Four and lost to their nemesis, UCLA, the eventual champion. (I seem to recall they won the consolation game to finish 3rd instead of 4th.) It was fun. All the more so because I knew some of the players socially.]
[I happened to travel with the team to North Carolina in early 1975 for the first round of that year's NCAA Tournament. (I was making a film for Lou.) Far less discussed than the 1969-1970 team, that NCAA appearance might have been one of his biggest accomplishments as a coach. There were no stars. The tallest player was Jim Bostic, 6' 7". (I recall Jim, who hailed from Westchester County, NY, as I did, as rather more scholarly and thoughtful than many ballplayers. I'd forgotten that Jim was drafted by the Kansas City Kings and actually played a few NBA games with the Detroit Pistons. He later coached for years, but also earned a Ph.D. in Theology and became a minister.) That unheralded team garnered an at-large bid; but playing 7th-ranked University of North Carolina IN North Carolina was no fun. The Aggies lost by 25 points, but Lou was the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year for getting them there at all.
That trip was when the news broke that Lou was going to leave us for Illinois, where Coach Gene Bartow had been announced as UCLA's successor to ___ Wooden." We were all happy for him, but sad for New Mexico. I remember afterward hoping Rob Evans, Lou's top assistant then, would be the Aggies' next coach, but that wasn't in the cards.]