Somewhere along the way in his career, somebody associated with JU decided that Rex Morgan shouldn’t be the head basketball coach at the Arlington school. It’s a bit of a shame, but his loyalty to the Dolphins never wavered. Sunday’s celebration of life for Morgan, who died last week at 67 after a battle with throat cancer, was held in JU’s Historic Swisher Gym, the site of Morgan’s exploits as a player in the late ’60’s and ’70’s.
“We ran a very patient, patterned offense,” Morgan’s coach Joe Williams told the 800 or so at Swisher to pay their respects. “But the first time the ball went to Rex on the wing, he took it to the basket and laid it in. He changed what we thought about coaching. Once we got Artis (Gilmore) and Pembroke (Burroughs), Tom (Wasdin, Williams’ assistant coach) and I just wanted to get up in the stands and watch. It was that good.”
After a loss in his freshman year, Wasdin told the crowd, “Rex got the team together and said, ‘You don’t know what’s going on here. How special it is to be at this school.’ We didn’t have any bad losses after that.”
Recalling the recruitment of Morgan, Wasdin said, “I told Rex we needed him and really wanted him. Rex said, ‘Coach, I’ve never seen a team that needed me more.'”
It was that kind of story told Sunday remembering Morgan as a player and coach of great passion and intensity, a natural leader.
“When he got the ball, he was in charge,” Pembroke Burroughs, a forward on the 1970 team that played in the national championship game recalled. “He wasn’t our point guard, but at 6’6″ when he got the ball on the wing, he took over.”
Morgan’s coaching career took him from an assistant at FSU under Williams to the USBL to Arlington Country Day School where his teams won seven state championships including five in a row. Morgan was known as fun-loving as well. His USBL team hosted boxer Roy Williams as part of a promotion as Williams played pro basketball and got into the ring for a fight the same day.
“He had a passion for basketball and for Jacksonville,” his friend and teammate Artis Gilmore said in front of Swisher. “He was a very good player, got caught up in a numbers game with the (Boston) Celtics. Very aggressive, very passionate about the game. Just a great competitor and a great friend.”
Gilmore might have been the centerpiece of the great JU teams in the early ’70’s but it was Morgan who made it all happen according to his coaches and teammates.
“A great passer but a great friend,” Williams said echoing Gilmore’s sentiment. “He always had the ability to make you think you were the most important person around.”