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Lou Henson, who led Illinois to the 1989 Final Four, dies at 88

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Lou Henson - 1989 (copy)

University of Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson walks from the court with players Kenny Battle, left, and Nick Anderson following their 83-69 victory over Louisville in NCAA action in the Metrodome, March 25, 1989.

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CHAMPAIGN — Lou Henson, the winningest coach in Illinois basketball history, died Saturday, according to a a release from the University of Illinois and first reported by the Champaign News-Gazette.

Henson coached 41 years at three programs, retiring from New Mexico State in 2005.

At Illinois, he was known for sporting a bright orange suit jacket and bringing the Illini to national prominence during a 21-year tenure. 

The Hall of Fame coach retired as the all-time leader in victories at both the University of Illinois with 423 wins and New Mexico State with 289 wins. A private graveside service was held with family members earlier Wednesday in Champaign.

Henson guided Illinois to the NCAA Tournament 12 times and amassed a 423-224 record from 1975-96. The peak came in 1989, when the Flyin’ Illini advanced to the Final Four in a 31-win season.

"Our Orange and Blue hearts are heavy," said Josh Whitman, Illinois Director of Athletics in a statement. "We have lost an Illini icon. We have lost a role model, a friend, and a leader. We have lost our coach. Coach Henson may be gone, but the memories he provided us, and the legacy he created, will last forever. He was responsible for almost 800 wins in the record book and countless Fighting Illini moments frozen in time, but Coach Henson's true measure will be felt in the lives he touched – the lives of his former players, people on this campus, and friends in our broader community.

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"We are all better for whatever time we were privileged to spend with Coach Lou, whether it was five minutes or 50 years. He made everyone feel like a friend. I so enjoyed my time with Coach these last five years, and I will miss him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mary, Lisa, Lori, Leigh Anne, and the entire Henson family. Their family will always be part of ours."

Henson had 11 20-win seasons, winning the 1984 Big Ten championship and earning a top-five seed in the NCAA tournament in consecutive years from 1984-1990. His 423 Big Ten victories rank fifth among conference coaches all time.

"Hearing the news of my college coach Lou Henson passed away over the weekend! Lou taught us a ton of lessons that really kicked in as adults," said former Illinois basketball player Stephen Bardo in a tweet. "Truly underrated coach and a great man. Rest easy Coach!"

With a career record of 779-419, he ranks 16th on the all-time NCAA wins list and 13th among coaches with at least 10 years in Division I.

He’s one of just 14 coaches to lead two teams to the Final Four, including the Aggies in 1970. Henson also is the only coach other than John Wooden to have two courts named after him -- at Illinois and New Mexico State.

"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," said Illinois Basketball Coach Brad Underwood in a statement. "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.

"My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Mary and their family, and the hundreds of players who were fortunate enough to be led by such a tremendous man and coach. Rest in peace to the best to ever wear the orange jacket; we'll miss you Coach."

Henson and his wife, Mary, were seen through the years supporting the Illini at sporting events and making appearances at functions. He was diagnosed in 2003 with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and had setbacks and chemotherapy treatments throughout the years.

He came to Champaign in 1975 after successful head coaching stints at Hardin-Simmons and New Mexico State universities.

Henson, who was born in Oklahoma, was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this story.


PHOTOS: Remembering Lou Henson's time with the Illini

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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