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Friends Henson, Fry were pioneers of change

Friends Henson, Fry were pioneers of change

Obit Henson Basketball

Former University of Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson acknowledges the crowd while taking his seat courtside during the dedication of the court in his name at the State Farm Center on Dec. 2, 2015 in Champaign, Ill.

It was traditional for Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson to join media members for lunch following his weekly news conferences.

The coach would grab a quick meal and talk over the day’s news events, and with Henson, conversations frequently involved sports beyond the one he coached.

What transpired on a Monday Night Football game or the previous weekend at the college level were often lunch-time topics.

The conversations were not unlike those that would take place at a workplace anywhere in the Quad-Cities region.

At a time when Hayden Fry was winning football games at Iowa and Henson was building a Final Four team at Illinois, I was caught a little off guard one week when Henson brought up his respect for the Hawkeye football coach and what I soon discovered was a longtime friendship between the two.

I learned later that Fry and his wife, Shirley, had hosted Henson and his wife, Mary, on occasion the night before Illinois played basketball games in Iowa City and that the Hensons had returned the favor prior to the Hawkeyes playing football in Champaign.

In retrospect, it made perfect sense.

The pair who each passed away within the past eight months — Fry last December in his home state and Henson 10 days ago — shared more than successful careers in college athletics.

They were both pioneers of change, forging a friendship as each worked as coaches and administrators at the college level.

Fry, the sharp-witted, story-telling native of Odessa, was coaching football and leading the athletics department at SMU at the same time Henson was not only coaching basketball but also working as the athletics director at New Mexico State.

Henson had a different style, more of a dry wit, but still had a good sense of humor reflecting on growing up in his hometown of Okay, Okla., where he grew up as one of 500 people.

Fry worked as the director of athletics at SMU from 1964-72 and North Texas State from 1973-78 before leaving for Iowa. Henson was the athletics director at New Mexico State from 1967-75 before replacing Gene Bartow as the basketball coach at Illinois.

By then, both had displayed a shared vision that the status quo had to change.

Fry and Henson each had a hand in integrating athletic programs they were a part of and, in each case, they arrived on the job wanting to make that change happen.

For Fry, he created a lasting legacy at SMU when he recruited Jerry Levias to join the football team he coached from 1962-72.

While he was working as a quarterbacks and running backs assistant at Arkansas, SMU reached out to Fry to talk about becoming the program’s head coach.

During an interview he described as routine in his book, "Hayden Fry: A High Porch Picnic," Fry wrote that when he asked about the possibility of integrating the SMU team, "Our discussions hit the wall. The question obviously surprised them, and they told me there was no chance of that happening."

SMU officials told Fry that nobody in the Southwest Conference had an integrated program and that SMU wasn’t going to be the first. Fry responded by telling SMU that he wasn’t interested the job.

"My attitude about race was developed early in life. I had black friends while growing up in Eastland and Odessa who I played and worked with," Fry wrote. "We spent a lot of time together. They lived on the ‘wrong side’ of the tracks, but I had lived there for a while, too."

He said he raised the possibility of integrating the SMU program because he wanted to do that, believed it was the right thing to do and knew that he had to negotiate that before accepting the job.

After some time following his original rejection, SMU officials called again to see if Fry was still interested in the job. He said he was, and that his stance on recruiting Black athletes for his program had not changed.

SMU officials eventually accepted Fry’s proposal and Fry took the job knowing that he needed a difference-making recruit.

He found that player in Levias, who Fry described as "the most exciting high school player I’d ever seen in Texas" and who ultimately enrolled in 1965 and took the field a year later for the season opener against an Illinois team coached by Pete Elliott, the brother of Bump Elliott, who a dozen years later would hire Fry to coach the Hawkeyes.

Fry’s role in integrating the Southwest Conference began at a time when Henson was cutting his teeth as a college basketball coach.

It was the spring of 1962, months after Fry was hired at SMU, and Henson-coached teams at Las Cruces High School in New Mexico had claimed three state titles in four years. Then 30 years old, Henson was mulling a career move.

He flirted with an opportunity to become an assistant at New Mexico, but liked the idea of becoming a head college coach even more.

Hardin-Simmons offered Henson an interview to make that happen, but Henson told the university’s acting president, Dr. George Graham, he had a request before agreeing to an in-person interview in Abilene.

"I may take the job if you’ll let me integrate the team," Henson recalled in his book, "Lou: Winning at Illinois."

It was a time when Hardin-Simmons had not only never had a Black player on its team but didn’t have any Black students enrolled at all.

Henson wanted to change that, telling Graham the high school teams he coached at Las Cruces had been integrated and he wanted the same situation in west Texas.

Graham agreed to present the idea to other campus leaders, and after discussion, Henson was given the chance to integrate the basketball team at Hardin-Simmons and had his first college coaching job along with a salary of $5,500.

Henson wrote about the challenges of recruiting in that era, saying coaches at the high school and junior college level had been visited by few white coaches, especially those from Southern universities.

"They went out of their ways to be hospitable and to guide me to players they felt could play at our level," Henson wrote.

He ultimately signed three players from Okalona Junior College in Mississippi — Art Haynes, Ambrose Kirk and Nate Madkins — and all three contributed during a 1962-63 season, which began with a road game against an Oklahoma State team coached by Henry Iba.

He recalled the verbal abuse the players took during road trips in those changing times, proud of how they dealt with it all as they adjusted to their new west Texas surroundings.

"That’s just the way it was back then," Henson wrote, offering that he knew he was doing the right thing much as Fry was working to do the same at SMU.


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