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A Few Minutes With former Illinois assistant coach Mark Coomes

Vince Lara speaks with former Illinois assistant coach Mark Coomes, the nephew of the late Lou Henson. Coomes talks to us about Henson's legacy on and off the court, and his work as a pioneer in the field if social justice.

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VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, a podcast that showcases Illinois's College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara and today I'm speaking with former Illinois assistant coach Mark Coomes, the nephew of the late Lou Henson. Coomes talks to us about Henson's legacy on and off the court, and his work as a pioneer in the field if social justice.

The first thing I wanted to ask you, you had mentioned when I heard you on this interview about the impact that he had on you growing up, obviously, as his nephew, you talked about how when you were 15 years old, you saw him come out of the basement with a basketball, and how that-- it seemed like that kind of changed your life. Had you been a basketball fan before that? And what did that mean to you to kind of get to learn from him at such an impactful age?

MARK COOMES: Well, he came out of the basement of his office in Old Williams gym on the Mexico State campus. And when he came out that day with a basketball to show me the mechanics of the shot, and what I should look for, and getting backspin on the ball, and taking his time to do that in the middle of the morning when I was shooting made me go from a guy that liked basketball to a guy that took basketball serious. And it was really that summer because I was in Los Cruces, New Mexico, for six weeks with him and my aunt, and my cousins. But I played basketball every day.

And the truth of the matter is that was the first time in my life at 15-years-old that I was around Hispanic and black people. And I played with them. We kibbutzed together. We enjoyed each other's company. And that was a huge cultural change for me because I was from Carroll County in northwest Illinois. And it was a small rural county. And the truth of the matter is there's still only one stoplight in the whole county. So it was it was all white. And that's the environment that I grew up in. And that particular summer changed my life forever. And I wanted to do something to get out of Carroll county. And basketball looked like an avenue for me to do that.

VINCE LARA: You mentioned your first interaction with people of color. And that's thanks in part to coach Henson. And I'm wondering Lou came from a time where integration was just sort of burgeoning into the country, and yet, he was at the forefront of it. And I wonder, where did he get that feeling of how important integration was? Did that come from his parents?

MARK COOMES: Well, I think probably his parents. But the truth of the matter is I think it was ingrained in his heart and his soul that people should get opportunities. And when he desegregated the basketball program in 1962 at Hardin-Simmons, that was 10 years. And when he became AD a couple of years later, he also brought on women's volleyball and women's basketball several years before Title IX was enacted in 1972. So that's just how Lou Henson was.

We talk about a portrait of a silent icon. He just did those things because he felt and he had the power. He was coach and AD. He had the power to do that. But I think that most interesting thing about desegregation of Hardin-Simmons was the fact that he was a successful high school coach coming off of three state champions. This was his first college opportunity, and he would not accept the job unless they allowed him to do that at 30 years of age.

Now in 1962, I think that was a real big deal. So that's how he felt. That's how he lived his life. And that's just the way that he went about doing things. He didn't need a law. He didn't need somebody telling him what to do right. He just did those things.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, you also spoke about how the coach really helped to shape lives. It went beyond the on the court stuff. And I wonder if you could expand on that a little bit.

MARK COOMES: Well, he would do anything for his grad assistants, for his assistant coaches, for his players. He went out of the way to help anybody that asked him to help them to benefit their lives, their professions, their standard of living. In coaching, in his coaching things, he constantly talked about being on time. And he said, look, you have to be on time for me because when you leave me, your employers are going to expect you to be on time. And if you're not on time, they're going to fire you. So we're going to start that right now. Everybody's going to be on time.

And he taught work ethic. Everybody is not the same kind of basketball player from one to the other. But guess what? Everybody can work hard. And if you don't want to work hard, then you're going to be in trouble with me. So those kind of values. Those kind of values.

And the third thing I think he really valued was being honest. He was an honest guy. And if he felt a certain way about a player, then he would tell him that, even though the player might not want to hear it. He would tell that to them anyway because that was for his betterment. If he had to work on something, he would tell him that. And if he didn't do it, then he wasn't going to be as good a player. So that's how coach affected people. And he would do anything to help any of us that worked for him. Just unbelievable. He was loyal with a capital L.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, I remember you talking about that in that other radio interview. Beyond the familial relationship that you both had, what was the major factor for you in wanting to go work with him?

MARK COOMES: Because I learned so much from him. I tried to be like a sponge. When I became a head basketball coach-- and he basically got me the job when I was 30 years old at Wabash Valley. I was a good recruiter at the time, and I recruited, really, a lot of good players. Ken Norman being one of them. They helped me get him. But I wasn't a real good coach.

But when I went back to Illinois in 1985-- and I was with him from '85 to '94-- probably what I'd say is the height of Big Ten basketball. There were just tremendous teams during that time. And that's when we had our '89 team. But I learned how to coach. I learned strategy. I learned about offensive and defensive special situations. I was with him as the guy that did the film work. We'd go over a lot of, films talk about a lot of strategy, talk about how to cover people.

And and the other thing that coach Henson was really good at is allowing his assistants to have a voice. And him and I locked horns several times. He once called me the most negative guy he's ever heard, that he's ever been around. And then we went out to lunch. But he wanted that feedback. He didn't want you to be a yes man. He had enough confidence in himself. And every assistant knew that he had the last word. So we might have discussions and we might have disagreements, but when push came to shove it to end, we were going to do it the way he thought was best.

VINCE LARA: That's amazing. You mentioned also beyond the integration, you talked about the Title IX-- the what he did for Title IX in trying to make sure that Title IX was paid attention to. And I wonder, is that part of the fairness doctrine that he that he had inside?

MARK COOMES: It absolutely was. And like I said earlier, he did Title IX before they had Title IX.


MARK COOMES: He did it eight or nine years when he became AD at Hardin-Simmons. He brought in women's basketball and volleyball, and they didn't have to do it. There was no Title IX in 1963 or '4. So I mean, that just talks about his humanity towards his fellow men and making sure that people had fair and equal opportunities. And he was doing that before it became fashionable, I should say.

VINCE LARA: I wondered, the game's changed so much, even on the college level. And I wonder, would coach be comfortable in this environment of basketball the way the games played differently, do you think?

MARK COOMES: Absolutely. I think Lou Henson's biggest, and I say this on my broadcast, I think one of his biggest strengths is his flexibility. I mean, when he got the New Mexico state job, The Miracle Midgets went the NCAA tournament the first year. And they were 4 and 22 before he came, basically with the same players. And they were a slowed-down, tempo team. That were a defensive team. If you get the lead on them, there were no shot clock, there's no 3-point shot back then. I mean, they're hard to beat if they got a lead on you. Versus three years from that point, when they had Jimmy Collins, Sam Lacey, and Charlie Criss. They were running and pressing and getting 90, 95 points a game. And they went to the Final Four that year.

So, that just tells you that with the personnel of one year, go three years forward, with a different personnel, that he was flexible in his coaching. And also at Illinois in 1984, when they almost went to the Final Four and got beat by Kentucky, they were a methodical team, a defensive team, a rebounding team. Sometimes they were in the 50s and 60s to win games. Well, our final four team going forward in '89, we were in the hundreds many a times. They scored 127 points at LSU, on the road. I mean, we just ran and pressed and dunked. So that just tells you how much flexibility he had when he looked at the particular teams he was coaching.

VINCE LARA: Yeah. He's going to be in Naismith, eventually. There's no doubt about that. He was a fantastic coach. He was a shaper of people. But what do you think coach would want his legacy to be?

MARK COOMES: I think he would want to be recognized as a top coach. But I think he would really like to be recognized as a great human being that helped people. That's what I really think. But look, in Champaign, my last five years when I was there after I retired, he would go to the Bridge Center, he would go to the bowling alley, he would go to nursing homes. He would go to assembly hall, he would go to different places, he lit up the room. Everybody wanted to touch Lou. And guess what? He allowed people to touch him. I've seen hundreds and hundreds of people where they want autographs, photographs, pictures, he would take his time. He would take time to talk to people, to have his picture taken with people. I mean, his legacy is about the people, really. I mean, the people. It's just about, he's got a great record, I agree with you. He should be in the Naismith Hall of Fame. That just doesn't happen by accident. But at the same time, I think his legacy with the common man and the way he treated them was just outstanding. He was very, very generous with his time. And he gave his time.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Mark Coomes. For more podcasts on Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio, RADIO.COM and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening. And see you next time.

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