Missouri native Jerry Armstrong, forward from the legendary 1966 Texas Western basketball team, passed away on Thursday, Feb. 4, at the age of 76. Armstrong left this earth for his heavenly home from the comfort of his house in Mountain Grove, where he lived with his wife, Mary.
Armstrong’s story began in Eagleville, Missouri where he was born in 1944 and raised by Orville and Eva Armstrong. He graduated from Eagleville High before his destiny led him to El Paso, Texas to continue his basketball career and pursue a degree in education. However, he left an impact that stretched far beyond the basketball court.
“Jerry’s basketball journey is just one of the many great stories related to Missouri Sports history… he coached basketball in the state for 21 years and was well-known for his coaching, but he’s also remembered as a fantastic high school player and of course for his spot on the ’66 national championship team portrayed in ’Glory Road,’” said the General Manager of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Jerald Andrews.
Armstrong retired in 1996 after a 30-year career in education. He was inducted to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame at its basketball luncheon in 2016 and many players from his 30 years of coaching came to witness history. He touched the lives of many during his time coaching and will continue inspiring young basketball players worldwide through his portrayal in the movie, ‘Glory Road.” Disney adapted the story of the 1966 NCAA National Champion Miners in the 2006 motion picture because of its significance in history as the first team with an all-black starting lineup. While Armstrong didn’t play in the championship game, he was the team’s co-captain that season and is remembered as a key player in the tournament.
“He was a standout player in college,” said Andrews. “Many people would say if he had not have played the defensive game that he played in the semifinals of the ’66 tournament, Texas Western would not have had the opportunity or the platform to make the statement that they did that year.”
Armstrong was a three-year letterman while at Texas Western and played in 24 games during his senior season. According to the MSHOF, Armstrong held Jerry Chambers to only a few points during the second half of the ’66 national semifinal to top Utah 85-74, leading the Miners to the big game.
The ’66 National Championship game vs. Kentucky was the first time in basketball history that five black players started and ultimately won the tournament.
“His college Coach [Don Haskins] apologized to Jerry decades later,” Andrews recalled. “Jerry was talking with him years after and his coach said, ‘You know, I probably made a mistake by not putting you in the game at some point,” but I think the he was just trying to make such a point at the time… and one that desperately needed to be made.”
Although some southern white campuses desegregated and blacks could attend class, they were still generally excluded from team sports. Kentucky’s head coach, Adolph Rupp, was known for his powerhouse program, but also for his refusal to recruit black players.
As Armstrong said at his MSHOF induction, ‘Everybody who puts a uniform on wants to play and I did want to play… but then ‘Glory Road’ and helping blacks all over the southeast break the color barrier in college basketball, that was a good thing. I was glad to have been a part of that history… I think it was destiny that it went the way it was supposed to.’
“When Jerry was being inducted someone had asked him about the film and he kind of grinned and said, ‘Hollywood does take their liberties at times but the story was pretty-well accurate,’” Andrews recalled. “I thought the movie was one of the most inspirational sports movies of our time and I am so pleased that Jerry was portrayed the way he was.”
The year after the movie was released, the team started seeing even further recognition, being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Texas Western – now called the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) – invited the ’66 Miners to attend a team reunion at the Don Haskins Center for the 50th anniversary of the championship game. President Barack Obama addressed them saying, “…by becoming the first team to win an NCAA title with five black starters, the Miners weren’t just champs on the court – they helped change the rules of the game. They didn’t know it at the time, but their contribution to civil rights was as important as any other… Go Miners!”
Making history for a game that you don’t play in doesn’t happen often, but Armstrong knew the significance of sitting so others could pave the way for the future of basketball.
“Of course he did remember going into places where they were not allowed to eat because they had black members on their team,” Andrews said. “But Jerry was never anything but complimentary about the teammates he had that season.”
The things he learned while at Texas Western were not always from a book. Armstrong had teammates who had grown up in poverty in Detroit, Chicago, Albuquerque and Houston. His unique experiences and the teammates he had throughout his career helped shape the educator and coach he became.
Armstrong dedicated years after retirement to speaking at middle and high schools about hanging out with the right crowd, the dangers of drugs and working together with people from different backgrounds. In 2012, he was able to bring his NCAA Championship ring and his iconic message to Marshfield High School and spoke at the Carl & Glessie Young Auditorium. Following the speech, he allowed kids to try on his ring and reminded them to work hard in everything they do, which speaks volumes to his character.
“That game was no doubt one of the most pivotal moments in basketball history. I think it’s wonderful that Jerry’s legacy will live on forever through that moment,” Andrews added. “He was such a great player… He had opportunities to go other places after high school but he chose Texas Western… He chose his destiny.”
Jerry Armstrong leaves behind his wife, Mary and two children, Kevin and Brad – both of which have furthered the family’s sports legacy in southwest Missouri. Kevin Armstrong was the Assistant Principal and Activities Director for Marshfield High School for eight years and Brad Armstrong is currently the Assistant Superintendent in Lebanon. He also had four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
There are no services planned due to COVID. Those who wish to support the Armstrong family during this difficult time can contribute to the Jerry Armstrong Memorial Scholarship Fun at Mansfield High School, 316 W. Ohio Street, Mansfield, MO 65704.