The beloved coach elevated Aggie men’s basketball to new heights, changed lives for decades

By Tiffany Acosta

With a paper napkin and a pen, Lou Henson ’55 ’56 shared his thoughts and diagrammed a 2-3 zone during breakfast with William Keys ’00.

“When he talked about basketball, he just lit up,” Keys says. “He was a pure genius when it came to coaching and getting the best out of young men. His temperament was amazing.”

A men’s basketball assistant coach at Northern New Mexico College, Keys pursued coaching after playing for Henson for two seasons and 14 years as a professional.

Henson, who passed away in July 2020, was the all-time winningest men’s basketball head coach in Aggie and University of Illinois history. He spent 16 seasons and two stints as the Aggies’ leader. As one of Henson’s Aggie assistant coaches from 2000-06, Tony Stubblefield also served as interim head coach when Henson missed the 2004-05 season due to a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“One thing I’ve really carried from coach was how to treat people and building relationships and maintaining relationships,” says Stubblefield, who is a men’s basketball assistant coach at the University of Oregon. “It was always much bigger than basketball for coach Henson. He treated people with respect from the janitor to the president of the university. Coach Henson always made people feel very important. I learned a lot of life lessons and I wouldn’t be where I am today without lessons that I learned from coach.”

Henson’s college coaching career began in 1962 at Hardin Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, a position he only accepted after HSU agreed to integrate the institution.

“He took a lot of young players, a lot of African Americans from the inner city, from tough backgrounds and mentored them. I came from one of those tough backgrounds,” Keys says.

Henson, who recorded 779 career victories, was one of only 15 coaches who have guided two programs to the Final Four, the Aggies in 1970 and Fighting Illini in 1989.

Off the court, Henson and his wife, Mary, supported many causes in the Las Cruces and Champaign, Illinois, communities for decades. The Hensons helped revitalize the Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces when they agreed in 2009 to become the face of its signature fundraiser, the Lou & Mary Henson Community Breakfast.

“To say that we are grateful for all that coach and Mary have done for us seems so inadequate to truly express our gratitude, and I honestly don’t know where we would be without them,” says Ashley Echavarria, Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces CEO. “Their support translates to thousands of young lives being guided and impacted along the way. Coach’s spirit will forever live on through our Clubs programs, and through the Henson Breakfast.”

“We took it tough with his passing but we knew he took every inch out of his life,” Keys says. “He lived his life to the fullest and did things the right way. While it was sad to see him go, he’s definitely going to be with us for the rest of our lives.”

To help continue Henson’s legacy, memorial contributions can be made to the Lou and Mary Henson Endowed Scholarship at nmsu.life/Hensonfund or to the Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces at bgclascruces.org.

Top: After beginning his coaching career at Las Cruces High School, Lou Henson returned to NMSU as men’s basketball head coach in 1966. With two stints as the Aggies’ leader, Henson coached and mentored young people throughout his life.
Middle: Lou Henson (front row, center) led the Aggie men’s basketball team to the Final Four in 1970. He also guided the University of Illinois to the Final Four in 1989, making Henson one of only 15 coaches to lead two programs to the Final Four.
Bottom: Henson, accompanied by his wife, Mary, was honored during a banner unveiling in December 2016 at the Pan American Center. In 2002, the court at the Pan American Center was renamed Lou Henson Court.