Rex Morgan remembered as family man, leader of fabled Jacksonville University basketball team
Sunday, the former Jacksonville University All-American, who led the Dolphins to the championship game of the 1970 NCAA Tournament, was remembered and eulogized on the same court by former teammates, coaches, family members and friends, who gathered to pay their respects to Morgan.
Morgan lost his battle with cancer and died on Jan. 15 at Memorial Hospital surrounded by his immediate family. He was 67.
Morgan played just two seasons for Jacksonville, 1968-70, after transferring from a small college in Illinois. But it was the second season in which he helped bring fame and notoriety to the small Arlington school. Joined by 7-foot-2 center Artis Gilmore and a pair of 6-9 forwards — Rod McIntyre and Pembrook Burrows — Morgan was the sparkplug who led the Dolphins to within a game of winning the national championship.
“I never thought when we went out on the floor that we were going to lose, and it was because of Rex,” said Greg Nelson, a former college teammate and one of 11 speakers at Sunday’s memorial service for Morgan. “Rex was like a third coach on that team.”
Morgan’s college coaches, head man Joe Williams and assistant Tom Wasdin, both returned to the school and spoke of their former player. Wasdin recalled what Morgan told him as he was being recruited to come to JU.
“He could have gone on to any number of bigger, more successful programs, schools that had been to the NCAA Tournament with success,” Wasdin said. “But I remember him telling me, ‘I want to put JU on the map. That’s why I want to come to Jacksonville.’
“Rex was our captain, our floor leader, the heart of our team in 1969-70. Artis was our best player, but Rex was our most valuable player for everything that he did. He changed the national reputation of Jacksonville basketball and put the city on the map.”
Jacksonville is still the smallest school ever to advance to the NCAA Tournament title game. That same Dolphins team was also the first to average 100 points a game, quite an accomplishment in an era that did not have the 3-point shot.
“We averaged 100 points but only seven turnovers a game,” Williams said. “It was because of Rex and how he would lead that team. ‘Reckless Rex Morgan’ is what he was known as, but he always played under control.”
After college, Morgan played two seasons in the NBA with the Boston Celtics before a knee injury cut short a promising career. He later went into coaching at various levels. His most successful venue was with Arlington Country Day, where he led the Apaches to seven state championships.
His love of his school and his family were two other areas in which speakers recounted Morgan memories and stories.
“Basketball was his passion. It was his life,” said son Taylor, who served as an assistant coach under Morgan at ACD and where he now serves as the school’s athletic director. “Life will never be the same without my dad. We worked together and loved each other so much. He was so special to my sister, Lyndsay, and me. Not only was he my dad, he was my best friend.”
JU is honoring Morgan by wearing the No. 24 — Morgan’s uniform number while at JU — on its jerseys the remainder of the season.
Morgan coached at ACD for 18 seasons, starting with the seventh-grade team in the mid-1990s. His most successful stint came during a five-year period stretching from the 2004-05 season through 2008-09, when each ACD team won a state championship.
“I’m shattered that he’s gone. Rex was like a father figure to me. He was my best friend,” said Jason Bennett, a 7-foot-3 center who was part of the turnout of close to 1,000 people who came to pay their respects. “He taught me so much. He taught me to be a wonderful player on the court but a great person off the court. I just loved the man.”
Deborah Condit is head administrator at ACD and once co-owned the school with Morgan. She had special praise for Morgan’s efforts to work with the student-athletes.
“He expected a lot from his players and loved them as if they were his own,” Condit said. “He taught them to be champions on and off the court. But the core of Rex’s very being was his love for his family. His family was the fuel that drove him every minute of every day.”
Morgan is survived by wife Kathleen, son Taylor, daughter Lyndsay and three grandsons — Miles, Merrick and Maddox Proly.