A reluctant hero
on the road to
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
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
“I even had
an assistant coach call and say, ‘Jerry,
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
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 —
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
didn’t want me to create shots,” Jerry says. “He
need it. Defense, that’s what he wanted me to do.”
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.
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.
wasn’t any talking back to Coach Haskins,” Jerry
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.”
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."
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.”
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
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
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