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COLLEGE BASKETBALL Bad health forces Henson out



Published: Sat, January 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The New Mexico State coach is 21 wins shy of 800.

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) -- Frail but smiling, New Mexico State coach Lou Henson pulled himself up from his wheelchair, his focus no longer on winning basketball games, but merely to walk again.

Henson, who began his coaching career at nearby Las Cruces High School in 1957, retired Saturday, 21 wins shy of becoming only the fifth coach in Division I history to win 800 games.

The coach known for his "Lou Do" hairstyle, his sometimes fiery courtside manner and ability to consistently turn out winning teams found his ongoing health problems too tough an opponent.

"I have always been a very demanding coach. I expect my players to give 100 percent or they come out of the game," the 73-year-old Henson said. "I can expect no less of myself. So because I am physically unable to give my all, I am taking myself out of the game."

History of ailments

Henson was not able to coach this season, but received credit for the Aggies' four wins to date. Under interim coach Tony Stubblefield, the Aggies are 4-13.

Henson retires with a career record of 779-413, the sixth-winningest in Division I history. Among active coaches, only Bob Knight has more victories.

Accompanied by his wife Mary, Henson received several standing ovations from the crowd of school officials, players and friends at the Fulton Athletics Center.

Henson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer, two years ago. The cancer is now in remission and he was able to coach last season, but in September was hospitalized with viral encephalitis, a disease which left his right leg paralyzed.

"Mary and I have known for a while that we didn't have much of a choice," Henson said. "It was an easy decision because in the last two years I've gone through some major health problems."

Henson coached at New Mexico State, his alma mater, from 1966 to 1975, then spent 21 years at Illinois, before retiring in 1996. That lasted only a year, with Henson returning to New Mexico State after Neil McCarthy was fired just before the start of the 1997-98 season.

In a 41-year career, Henson became the winningest coach at Illinois and New Mexico State.

He led both schools to the Final Four -- the Aggies in 1970 and the Illini in 1989.

"The players we coached and our relationships," Henson said of his fondest memories. "I have doctors, lawyers and business people all over the country."

Peer respect

Colleagues like Knight, with whom Henson carried on a fierce rivalry when both were in the Big Ten, praised Henson's ability to get the most from his players.

"I think Lou's teams were always among the best prepared and that made the games fun and interesting for the fans," Knight said in a statement issued by New Mexico State.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called Henson, "truly a legend and an example of what a coach should be."

Senior Allen Haynes, who played for years under Henson, called it "a tough day."

"I thought coach Henson would be giving me the microphone on seniors' night, but his health is more important," Haynes said. "I learned a lot from Coach ... because of what he went through the last year and a half. He taught me perseverance."

University president Michael Martin said the school had hoped Henson could coach the Aggies long enough to reach 800 victories. He said it would have been a great marketing opportunity for the school and "national attention grabber."

"But we're not here simply to win basketball games," Martin said. "We're here to influence the lives of students and student athletes. So there's a difference between simple numbers and quality. Coach Henson, unquestionably, coached here and at Illinois with the highest level of integrity. So it would make no difference what the number is, the quality is so high that in my mind, he has 8,000 wins."

And while there was plenty of emotion at Henson's decision, Mary Henson said she was ready to see her husband step down.

"I'm happy that's he's letting go of such a huge responsibility," she said.




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