Many Illinois basketball fans weren’t alive or don’t remember Lou Henson coaching because they were too young.
I am one of those Illini fans. While I was born in the 1990s, I never got a full grasp of what Henson could do on the basketball court. So, what I have to go off of is other people’s accounts of the legendary coach, and what the numbers bear out.
When you think about legendary coaches in the college basketball world, Henson’s name doesn’t come up nearly enough. You hear mentions of Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Bobby Knight, and other legends of that ilk. But Henson’s name seems to be left out of the majority of the time.
Numbers matter in the grand scheme of things. Do they tell the entire story? No, but they are what will be recorded in the history books. Despite not being mentioned in the pantheon of legendary coaches nearly enough, Henson should be one of those legends.
Lou Henson took Illinois basketball from a floundering program to one of the top teams in the country.
1 NCAA in the prior 23 seasons
Before Henson took the reins in Champaign, the Illini had a struggling program. Postseason visits – let alone postseason success – didn’t happen frequently.
Illinois had only made five NCAA tournament appearances before Henson became the head coach of the Illini. But that is not the most eye-popping NCAA tournament stat. Leading up to the coaching change, the Orange and Blue only had one NCAA tournament appearance in the prior 23 seasons, which included 12 straight missed postseasons.
13 consecutive winning seasons
Much of the younger fanbase hasn’t had an Illinois basketball program that has won on a consistent basis. Since Henson left the Illini, the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons was by Bruce Weber who had four winning seasons in a row. Before Henson took over at Illinois, the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons was by Harry Combes, who had 10 winning seasons in a row in the 1940s and 1950s.
Henson was able to top all of these previous Illinois head coaches. He had a streak of 13 consecutive seasons of winning basketball. Think about that for a second. Most coaches can’t last 13 seasons at a program, let alone have a winning record for 13 consecutive seasons.
9 consecutive 21+ win seasons
There were two pinnacles of the Illinois basketball program. One was in the early-to-mid 2000s and the other one was in the 1980s with Henson at the helm.
Henson took Illinois from a program that had struggled to see 15 wins in a season in the two decades prior to a team that consistently won over 20 games a season. In fact, during his height with the Illini, Henson had a run of nine consecutive seasons of 21+wins. Not only has no other Illinois coach accomplished this feat, but Bobby Knight couldn’t even manage to pull this off.
Henson did a lot of winning during his time at Illinois, and this was based on his own doing. He built the Illinois basketball program into a powerhouse. What he inherited was a team that was clearly on the decline.
In the two seasons prior to Henson taking over, Illinois had a combined record of 13-36. By percentage, this was the worst two-year stretch in program history. These two seasons ranked No. 2 and No. 5 in the worst win percentage in the history of Illinois basketball. That is what Henson took over. This program was a mess, and he fixed it.
7 straight seasons finishing in the top 20
Having a consistent program is an impressive feat. There are not many coaches who can put together a run as Henson did with Illinois.
To have a top 20 program in the country is something to strive for, but when you can produce a top 20 team each season, that is what is really impressive. Henson not only had a top 20 program in the 1980s, but he had seven straight seasons at Illinois finishing in the top 20 in the nation. This is a feat that coaches like Bobby Knight, Gene Keady, and Tom Izzo couldn’t manage to accomplish.
Henson was a legend as a coach and was probably an even better person. There are many Illini fans today who don’t remember or weren’t even born to see Henson coach the Orange and Blue. All we have are numbers, and those numbers help tell the story of how much he truly meant to Illinois basketball.