basketball

Shelf life has expired on a bygone era of Illinois basketball

CHAMPAIGN – Sitting at Bromley Hall on the west side of the University of Illinois campus one day this month, we were reminded that time doesn’t stop. If nothing else, the gray hair and aging fashion reminded us, for the most part, we were all past our prime.

A group of 20 or so men were invited to lunch with Lou Henson, the Illini legend who battles health issues. Henson walks with the assistance of two canes plus a wing man on his arm. He goes through each day with chronic leg pain. Once we reach the mid-80s, nothing should be taken for granted. It’s a lesson for everyone at any age.

The rest of the group probably had some nagging pain. Knees, hips, backs, hearts ache the older you get. The bulk of the crowd was retired basketball coaches who worked Henson’s summer camps for years, probably decades. Traveling from across the state, they returned to Champaign one more time to visit with Henson, the guy who lifted the Illini from basketball purgatory and ignited a run that lasted for nearly 30 years. Times were good.

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In 21 years, Lou Henson won a school-record 423 games.

Back in the day, we just thought it would never stop.

“Everything has a shelf life,’’ said Mark Coomes, a former Illini assistant and Henson’s nephew.

He was referring to era when this group of men enjoyed coaching the game they loved and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. The seasons rolled from one year to the next, but summer always meant camps, meeting old friends and passing on the game to another group of kids. Sometimes, people don’t think about how many trips we have around the sun. That’s how we approach life. Enjoy each day, yet we won’t expect this run to end. We don’t think about the shelf life.

It happened to me. I covered Illini athletics for more than 20 years when the phone call came from GateHouse Media. We needed to have coffee. Of course, they didn’t want to buy me coffee. At a small table in a McDonald’s on Mattis between retirees working on an Egg McMuffin and a cheap breakfast burrito, they announced to me my position had been eliminated. Immediate layoff. At the time, the concern was more about not getting to work a job I loved in the future rather than appreciating the experiences of the past.

My shelf life as a regular beat writer had come to an end. My world had changed. The years have passed. While I miss the everyday visits to campus, the camaraderie in the press box, the road trips through Big Ten Conference geography, this quick trip for lunch with Henson reminded me to savor each day.

Everything, and everyone, has a shelf life. The faces around the room had wrinkled through the years, but it was great to see the enthusiasm in Henson’s eyes. Nobody there could understand how Henson – who is already in a handful of Halls of Fame – wouldn’t be included with the Illini athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. Formal induction comes at a gala later this week in Chicago. If they wanted to attempt to cover up a horrible mistake, then the committee should honor Henson during the event.

But this meeting on a warm afternoon was about old relationships and old friends. You just can’t wipe that toothy smile off Itchy Jones’ face, and his energy is still as contagious as the day I first met him during his tenure as SIU baseball coach. Jim Wright was a former basketball assistant coach and, like me, a native of Lawrenceville, a small southeastern Illinois town once known for prep hoops. The two of us, separated by 30 years of age, talked about how our retired high school building just burned to the ground. Other faces reminded me of the days when I never considered how long my newspaper career would last, or if it would ever end on someone else’s decision.

Driving through Champaign-Urbana, it’s easy to notice how things have changed. New buildings sprouted everywhere. For alums, it must be even more apparent. Their pizza places and rental houses have likely disappeared, replaced by high rise development. Even Assembly Hall and Memorial Stadium have changed, by design if not name. The shelf life of people, careers and buildings has an expiration date.

Unless you’re Kansas, Kentucky or North Carolina, programs also have a shelf life. More often than not, a school’s standing in college basketball is determined by the man at the top. Some programs can keep the momentum going for a few years after the guy who built it retires or moves on. Making the next hire is so critical. Often, the momentum evaporates, the wins diminish and the fans disappear.

Illinois extended its shelf life by hiring Lon Kruger, who managed to upgrade the roster by snagging key instate recruits. He left one day when the NBA called, replaced by a fast-rising Bill Self, who stocked the roster by securing the key local recruits but also expanding the Illini brand in recruiting to Texas and elsewhere. Then came Bruce Weber, who guided the Illini to the NCAA title game.

The talk was about the Illini as an elite program and taking the next step by securing the school’s first national title. No one realized the shelf life of this run was about to hit the expiration date. After Mike Thomas and John Groce were shipped out of town, it’s left to a new generation in the athletic department to put a product on the floor that has a shelf life of more than a one-game upset here or there, a run in the NIT and excitement from a recruiting victory, however big or small. The shelf life of Illini basketball started by Henson has expired.

Looking around the room that day, the notion hit that those days as a reporter came just at the right time, smack dab in the middle of a run that lasted for three decades. Just as important, I managed to reach town when this group of gray-haired men were still in their prime, coaching during a time when it wasn’t a million-dollar job meant to be hidden away behind a locked door. Today, coaches are shielded from everyday fans and media, guarding their annuities, I suppose, while players are coddled and only brought out to the public for rehearsed events, such as games and media day.

The mingling is limited. Building relationships with those in the athletic department is cut off, unless you’re a donor paying for the opportunity. With TV networks paying millions to each school every year, there’s little need for rubbing elbows with Joe Fan.

It’s not how the coaches, athletic department staff and reporters sitting at the tables at Bromley Hall did it back in the day. The shelf life for the way these men did things has expired.

Coincidentally or not, so did that Illini run that began with Henson.

John Supinie is a columnist for Orangeandbluenews.com. During the day, he’s an Audi Brand Specialist at Green Audi in Springfield. Call or text him at 217-377-1977 if you’re looking for an Audi, Volkswagen, Toyota or preowned car. Ask for the Illini deal.

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