Growing up in Moline, you had a choice to make — the Iowa Hawkeyes or the Illinois Fighting Illini.
While Iowa City was closer, there was no doubt in my mind that I would become a fan of the state school in Champaign-Urbana.
And my favorite Illini teams were the ones under the direction of Lou Henson in the early 1980s with players like Eddie Johnson, Derek Harper Efrem Winters, Anthony Welch and then there was Bruce Douglas, who I saw play for the Quincy Blue Devils at Wharton Field House before putting on the Orange-and-Blue.
The idea of playing for Coach Henson was the dream of thousands of young boys in Illinois at the time.
I was blessed enough to get a Lou Henson autograph during that time. My mother, Mavis Dare, secured his signature on a wine list (she didn’t have anything else for him to sign) from an old Moline restaurant, Harold’s on the Rock.
Thankfully, I still have that autograph.
On Saturday, the legendary coach of the 1989 Flyin’ Illini passed away in his Champaign home. The Hall of Fame coach, who is the all-time leader in wins at both Illinois (423) and New Mexico State (289), was 88. A private graveside service was held with family members on Wednesday in Champaign.
And while this is a very somber time for the Illini Nation, myself included, I have to think back to my time in Las Cruces, N.M.
You see when I took a job at the Las Cruces Sun-News, I wrote an introductory article on myself.
The next day, I had a call on my office phone, it was coach Henson.
“Chad, this Lou Henson, Mary and I would like to invite you to dinner at house this Sunday,’’ said Henson.
After getting past the shock of the call, I had to regrettably inform him that I was scheduled to work on Sunday.
“Chad, I don’t think you heard me, Mary is expecting you for dinner on Sunday,’’ said the very experienced coach.
I knew immediately that my schedule was going to change.
That Sunday, the Midwestern boy who had just moved the Southwest not only got the opportunity of a lifetime, meeting a childhood idol, but former Bloomington Pantagraph sports editor Jim Barnhart, who had retired and moved to Las Cruces, was also there. It was a network of Illinois people that helped me feel at home.
Over that first year in Las Cruces, there were a lot of changes at New Mexico State University and Henson’s name came up in several rumors.
First, there was the job of athletics director and Henson was supposedly one of two finalists.
Trying to be a good reporter, I called the Henson house the night before the announcement and Mary answered the phone.
“Chad, Lou can’t talk about that,’’ she said. “And the only way that I will let him take that job is over my dead body and you don’t see my obituary in the paper for tomorrow, do you?’’
Sure enough, the next day, Jim Paul was named the athletics director.
But shortly after that, Paul decided to reassign then-New Mexico State coach Neil McCarthy. Henson was supposedly going to take over the basketball program that he led to Final Four back in 1970.
The same phone call to the Henson house was made.
Mary’s answer was a little different this time around.
“Chad, we can’t talk about that,’’ she said.
In less than 48 hours, Henson was back in charge of the Aggie basketball program.
That first year was very interesting. Henson rebuilt the team with the help of players from the former Northeastern Illinois Golden Eagles and he also brought his brother, Ken Henson, to New Mexico State as an assistant.
There were some fun road trips to wonderful places like Boise, Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, Logan, Utah, and Reno, Nev.
At the Kibbe Dome in Moscow before a game with the University of Idaho, New Mexico State guard Denmark Reid got hit in the head with a discus from an indoor track meet during the Aggies pre-game shootaround.
Reid was cleared to play but it was an opportunity for Henson to use his great sense of humor.
“Denmark, you need to learn to duck,’’ Henson joked.
During the next season at New Mexico State, Henson became the 13th coach in NCAA Division I history with 700 wins.
As part of a special section at the Las Cruces Sun-News, I got the opportunity to write a story about Henson’s early coaching days in Las Cruces.
Upon his graduation from New Mexico State with a master’s degree, Henson accepted a teaching position at the Las Cruces High where he also served at the junior varsity basketball coach.
In 1956, he was promoted to head coach and he would lead the Bulldogs to 145 wins in six years and three consecutive state titles (1959, 1960 and 1961).
From there, he went to Hardin-Simmons to begin 41 years as a collegiate basketball coach.
One of my keepsakes from my time in Las Cruces is an autographed copy of his book “Lou: Winning at Illinois” written by Skip Myslenski.