The NCAA soon will crown a new college basketball champion, but they're also looking back 50 years at a championship game that made history.
Senior forward Jerry Armstrong grew up in rural Eagleville, Missouri. He played throughout the season and in the tournament, but he sat out that game. Why? He's white. Texas Western only played African-American players to beat an all-white Kentucky team and win the championship.
David Lattin, one of the African-American starters in the title game, there's a misconception about the 1966 Texas Western roster.
“Even though only the African-Americans played in the game that night, the other white guys and the Hispanic guy played during the season,” says Lattin. “They were very important to our success.”
How in the world did Jerry Armstrong, a 6-foot-5 high school kid from northern Missouri, end up in El Paso, Texas, at the college now known as UTEP? Armstrong says his high school coach, George Kling, swayed him.
“My coach told me, ‘Jerry you could go to a big university if you want and be a small fish, or you could go to a smaller university and maybe be a bigger fish,’” says Armstrong.
He adds with a laugh, “I chose to go down there and be a bigger fish not knowing that we were going to be the national championship team.”
Before attending Texas Western, Armstrong never played against or with a black person. “It was a big transition for me, but I was fortunate my parents weren’t racial,” he says. “They taught me to respect people for who they are, not what they are.”
Armstrong also noticed that about the coach at Texas Western, Don Haskins.
“Coach Haskins didn’t see color,” says Armstrong. “He saw athletes and he recruited the best possible athletes that he could get to come down to El Paso.”
Meanwhile the national spotlight was on Kentucky, the traditional power under coach Adolph Rupp, who didn’t integrate his team until 1972.
To reach the 1966 Final Four, Texas Western beat Cincinnati in the regional semis and played Kansas in the regional final. As a Missouri native, that game against Kansas, Jerry Armstrong’s last start, carried a lot of meaning.
“Oh yes, we knew we were in for a ballgame because of all the history of Kansas.” he says.
Ted Owens, in 1966, was the Jayhawks coach for that regional final which went into two overtimes.
“I look back at that game as a classic game. Two great teams playing. We had a chance,” says Owens. “If Jo Jo’s (White) shot counts, then we could have won the national championship. I thought that was one of the greatest teams in the history of Kansas basketball.”
Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Jo Jo White hit what appeared to be the game-winning shot in the first overtime, but one of his heels was ruled out of bounds, so the basket didn’t count.
“When the whistle blew, I thought ‘Oh no’ he made it, we fouled him and we’re done,” says Armstrong.
Though the Miners needed two more victories at the Final Four, Armstrong says the toughest opponents in ‘66 were at the regional, “Actually in my own opinion, I thought Kansas and Cincinnati might have been better ball clubs than Kentucky.”
Armstrong came off the bench to help the Miners win the national semifinal game against Utah. But he sat on the bench in the title game while history was made with the African-American players. It spawned a movie ten years ago called Glory Road. Armstrong says Haskins later offered an apology.
“He says, ‘Yeah, I should have played you in the finals. I says, ‘You know coach everybody who puts a uniform on wants to play and I did want to play.’ I thought I could help,” says Armstrong. “But “Glory Road” wouldn’t have been made. I think it was destiny that it went the way it was supposed to.”
After graduation, Armstrong returned to Missouri to become a high school basketball coach and principal. Now he’s retired and living in southern Missouri.
Fifty years later, he’ll return to the Final Four to rejoin his teammates as they are honored in Houston next month.