Rural Missouri Magazine

Jerry Armstrong:
A reluctant hero on the road to

by Jim McCarty

Jerry Armstrong became part of history as a member of the 1966 NCAA champion Western Texas Miners. The team’s championship season is the subject of a Disney movie called “Glory Road.”

Forty years ago Jerry Armstrong became part of history. Then he promptly forgot about it. He usually doesn’t wear the NCAA Championship ring he earned as a member of the 1965-66 Texas Western college basketball team. For 40 years, the Intercounty Electric Co-op member hardly ever talked about the challenges of that storied season.

But that all changed this winter when the movie “Glory Road” opened. Jerry, along with his entire family, traveled to El Paso, Texas, to see himself portrayed by actor Austin Nichols in the story of how black athletes got their first chance to play major college sports.

Since the movie opened, the phone in Jerry’s Mountain Grove home hasn’t stopped ringing as friends, family and former players call to ask the same question.

“I even had an assistant coach call and say, ‘Jerry, why didn’t you tell me about this?’” says the former coach, principal and basketball star. “It really wasn’t that important to me. I loved what I did and don’t get me wrong, winning a national championship was great. But I was more into coaching, in teaching, than in what I had accomplished.”

The 1966 Texas Western College Miners was the first team to win a national college basketball championship fielding an all-black starting lineup. Jerry Armstrong is shown in the top row, second player from the left. Photo courtesy of University of Texas — El Paso.

Jerry says none of the players on the team knew the historical significance of that championship game, when Coach Don Haskins broke down racial barriers by fielding the country’s first all-black starting lineup. Texas Western, now the University of Texas-El Paso, won the national championship by beating all-white Kentucky against a backdrop of the struggle for civil rights.

“At that time, up until just recently, I didn’t realize how important that game was to those guys,” Jerry says of the championship game. “We were just college kids playing a ball game. The blacks didn’t even realize what it would mean.”

Jerry was one of the four white players on the racially diverse team, which included one Hispanic and seven black players. He was a high school sensation from Eagleville, Mo., who averaged 20 points and 19 rebounds per game.

In his senior year of high school, Jerry led Eagleville to the state championship, losing in the final game to Bradleyville. Jerry was the youngest of a family full of star athletes. His father was a semi-pro baseball player who always encouraged his sons in whatever sport they played.

“I don’t care if it was the middle of the summer and if he was planting,” Jerry says. “He would quit in time to make sure I got to baseball practice.”

At 6 feet, 4 inches in high school and an inch taller in college, Jerry had the size and touch to get the attention of many basketball coaches. He picked the Texas school because its small size, he felt, would offer him more playing time than schools like Maryland and Memphis State, which also offered him scholarships.

Under the demanding Coach Haskins, Jerry moved from being a shooter to a defensive specialist. He came off the bench to play defense, usually against the opponent’s toughest player. He was used to feed the ball to big men like center David Lattin.

Armstrong, shown here battling an Iowa player for the ball, was a role player who specialized in tenacious defense. Photo courtesy of University of Texas — El Paso.

“Haskins didn’t want me to create shots,” Jerry says. “He didn’t need it. Defense, that’s what he wanted me to do.”

On the road to the Final Four, Jerry got the call to take on Utah’s high-scoring forward Jerry Chambers, who would be named the tournament MVP. “None of those other guys could defend me,” Chambers told the Salt Lake City Tribune in a recent story.

“Glory Road” takes a lot of liberties recounting the tale of the team’s rise to fame. It compresses into one year the recruiting of Haskins. It shows confrontations between players and coach that never happened.

“There wasn’t any talking back to Coach Haskins,” Jerry says. “Those things did not happen.”

While Jerry is glad the movie was made, he wishes it focused more on the chemistry between the players and the fact that this was a quality basketball team.

“It takes away from how great a team we were,” Jerry says of the Disney movie. “We had a great team and great individuals. We had great on-the-floor and off-the-floor relationships. We all wanted to win. We all wanted playing time.”

In the movie’s climactic moment, Haskins addresses his players before the championship game and tells them that only the black players would play against segregated Kentucky. Jerry’s character speaks for the rest of the team when he tells the coach they all want to play but supported his decision.

The dream of every athlete, Jerry has been immortalized on a Wheaties cereal box. The honor came as the 1966 Texas Western College Miners became the subject of a major motion picture, "Glory Road."

“I didn’t find out until 35 years later that he (Coach Haskins) met in David Lattin’s room and told them a statement had been made that blacks didn’t have enough discipline or leadership to beat five whites,” Jerry says. “He told them, ‘It’s up to you to make a statement.’ Our black teammates, they were great individuals. They didn’t make it a racial thing. If they had, we wouldn’t have made it where we did.”

The championship came in Jerry’s senior year. Haskins received baskets full of hate mail for doing what he thought was right. Eventually colleges started following his lead, recruiting and playing black athletes. The rest is history.

Jerry graduated and returned with his wife, Mary, to Missouri where he became assistant coach at Trenton. He later coached teams at King City, Richmond and Mansfield, winning more than 300 games in a 21-year career. He left coaching to become Mansfield’s principal, retiring after 30 years in education.

As the calls pour in congratulating him on his accomplishments so many years ago, Jerry keeps it in perspective. Limo rides, book signings and even being featured in a team photo on Wheaties boxes are just icing on an already rewarding life.

“I really appreciate people calling and telling me we opened up doors for others to attend college,” he says. “It makes me feel good we accomplished that.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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