By McPherson High boys basketball standards, it was a drought like none other.
After winning state championships in 1972, 1973 and 1974, then taking second place in 1975, the Bullpups finally hit a bump in the road.
They did make the state tournament in 1976, but lost in the first round.
Then came the darkest period of Bullpup basketball since a stretch that covered nearly 10 years back in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The Bullpups didn’t make state in 1977. Or 1978. In fact, MHS went through 1983 being spectators at the state tournament.
But at the start of the 1983-84 season, longtime legendary coach Jay Frazier turned the program over to young assistant Mike Henson. Frazier had compiled an amazing 409-160 record and was a Hall of Fame coach.
But he decided it was time for a new voice. Henson had enjoyed success at then-McPherson Junior High before being an assistant to Frazier for a year.
There was much anticipation going into the ’83-84 season. The Bullpups were a senior-dominated team the year before, with Mark Wash the only returning starter for the new coach.
A lot of fervent McPherson supporters were wondering if this young coach had what it took. He had a group of untested players, one of whom was his sophomore son.
It took all of one game for Steve Henson to prove his worth to the Bullpup fans. A 29-point, 14-rebound performance will do that. To this day, those who follow MHS basketball closely will say it was his best-ever game and he threw down a thunderous dunk that made him an instant fan favorite.
The Bullpups would go on to finish that year with a 17-7 record and return to the state tournament, where they would finish fourth.
Bullpup basketball was back. And it hasn’t gone away since then.
And Steve Henson was on his way to becoming the most successful player in Bullpup history. He was eventually passed on the scoring list with the advent of freshman basketball, but those who saw him play know he could have scored hundreds of more points, except he was all about setting up his teammates.
He grew up watching Bullpup basketball as a youth, always waiting for his chance to be part of arguably the most successful program in Kansas.
“It goes all the way back to just watching games in the Roundhouse,” said Henson, who, spoke Thursday evening to a crowd of more than 200 at Central Christian College’s Greer Auditorium. “The Mac Invite, the people that came through there. Getting out of school and watching those teams come through there, the excitement that was generated from that. Running out of that tunnel with the band playing never, ever got old.”
Henson knew that many questions had to be answered when he took his place in the starting lineup. Back in those days freshmen were not part of the high school and there was a lot of pressure on this precocious youngster that many had never witnessed.
“We were just so close,” Henson said of that very first team. “Chemistry and camaraderie was terrific. There were a lot of questions surrounding the new coach, it was no longer Jay Frazier, so there were some questions about that and how we were going to handle all of it. I just know we had a good first game (a 78-70 victory over a good Winfield team) that kind of let people know that (a) Mike Henson knew what he was going and (b) that I could probably contribute a little bit as a sophomore. That was a little bit unusual at that time for sophomores to be starting I think. We kind of eliminated that right out of the gates and settled in and played some pretty good basketball.”
Word spread quickly around the state that Bullpup basketball was on its way back. Given how young the team was, it was only going to get better.
His junior year the Bullpups were 21-3 and Henson’s 30-point game propelled MHS into the state semifinals where it lost to Washburn Rural. It was then edged by Liberal for third.
In Henson’s much-anticipated senior year, the Bullpups lost their first game of the season at Hutchinson, then reeled off 19 wins in a row. But in an emotionally charged sub-state title game at Buhler, MHS lost to the host Crusaders 50-47, in a game remembered as much for a large group of fans not being able to get into the gym because it was bursting from the overflow.
Henson, though, doesn’t recall that many moments of his Bullpup career.
“Unfortunately some of those, the ones you lose, often stick with you more than anything,” said Henson, who was 57-12 as a Bullpup player. “You have high expectations and when it’s over it’s so abrupt. There’s a lot of highs, but there’s lows and the lows can be pretty painful. Your senior year is over, it’s a painful thing... some of us had been together since the fourth or fifth grade.”
Henson became Lon Kruger’s first-ever signee at Kansas State and it was the beginning of a relationship that is still stronger than strong to this day. After a tremendous four-year career, which earned him a spot in the school’s Hall of Fame, he later joined Kruger as an assistant at various stops before finally deciding the time had come to try his hand with his own program, becoming the head coach at the University of Texas-San Antonio, where he just completed his third season and has the program on the right track.
“Those days were terrific,” Henson said of his time as a Wildcat. “I grew up a K-State fan and the opportunity go to play there was very special. Technically I was the first recruit, but we also knew that Mitch Richmond was coming and that made things look even sweeter. I went there with the plan of playing four years of basketball and run track for three years, redshirt one year, then have that fifth year to prepare for the Olympics. I thought I was going to be an Olympic decathlete and that was my dream. I was a better track athlete in high school than I was in basketball. When I got to K-State, the track career kind of leveled off... my basketball career got a little better.”
Henson’s final two years, especially, established him as one of the nation’s top guards and suddenly the NBA was in the picture. He wound up being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks and later played for several other teams before going overseas to complete his professional career.
Henson followed Kruger as an assistant at college stops such as Illinois, Florida, UNLV and Oklahoma, all resulting in top-notch success. Finally, he decided it was time to break off and see what he could do on his own.
“That was a tough decision,” Henson said of leaving Oklahoma. “My life was really, really good at OU. It’s an unbelievable athletic department with great leadership. (Athletic Director) Joe Castiglione is one of the most respected guys in the business...they’re building something every year for a different sport. They expect you to win championships and they provide the facilities and things that you need. Norman was a good place to be. Part of the country we enjoyed being in, it’s not that far from here, from home. Working for coach Kruger, he’s the best. If we lose it’s his fault, he takes that approach. If we win, he gives everybody else credit. He gives you freedom to do what you think will help the team. So it was a great situation there, but there comes a point where it’s just time to do it.”
Henson had been offered numerous coaching jobs, but was waiting for what he believed to be the best situation.
“You’ve got to get it right,” he said of the choice. “You want to be a head coach and it’s hard. You can’t just take one (job) just to be taking one. That was the conversation coach Kruger and I had quite a few times when different jobs would pop up. Wanted to make sure it was a situation where we would have a chance to win or make progress and turn the corner.”
Henson has UTSA on the right track. The Roadrunners have made a meteoric rise in the Conference USA, going from last place when he took over to a tie for second this year. He says team chemistry is perhaps the most important component for a team and he has taken what he learned from Kruger and employed some of his own beliefs into making his program one the Roadrunner fans can be proud of.
He recruits a lot of players who are Henson-type players — tough, no-nonsense and all about the team. Not much different from when he was accumulating floor burns while diving on the floor for loose balls and battling taller players for rebounds. You can be assured a Henson-coached team will play harder than its opponents because he won’t accept anything less.