How a Fort Smith native helped put Centre College & Southern football on the national map

Carroll University Library Archives

Before Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, and before Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman in 2000, this Arkansan took Centre’s stage.

In the 21st century, Centre College’s national reputation has been staked to two events: the 2000 vice presidential debate and Thursday’s vice presidential debate/smirkfest pitting incumbent Joe Biden against Republican Paul Ryan.

For the 20th century, though, there is no debate on which event stands above the rest in the annals of this small, Presbyterian Kentucky school.

In 1921, Centre College’s football team snapped then powerhouse Harvard’s five-year winning  streak, which the New York Times tabbed as arguably the century’s greatest upset. It might not have happened without Centre captain Norris Armstrong, a native of Fort Smith, Ark.  Armstrong’s role in that 6-0 road victory wasn’t flashy; not that there was too much flash to go around in a game that ended 6-0 and was played in the 1920s. But the 5-10, 165-pound Armstrong did provide crucial blocking on teammate Bo McMillin’s a looping 32-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. So much acclaim came from this upset by a school of less than 300 students, that apparently McMillan later had a board game named after him.

“It’s the archetypal story of the underdog; Centre was so much smaller than Harvard,” the school’s director of communications told The Advocate-Messengera local newspaper, in 2006. “Also, there was prejudice against the South, and Centre was viewed as being in the South. And the fact these Southern boys went up there and give mighty Harvard a lesson in football captured the nation’s attention.”

Not surprisingly, the players got much ink in the following months and even met movie stars in Hollywood. Unfortunately, any articles written about Norris Armstrong, who went on to the NFL before a coaching career, haven’t yet been digitized for easy access online. Thankfully, I’ve had a few people help me fill this void.

The first is a writer who was referred to me by the  Fort Smith Historical Society Volunteers. He filled me in on Armstrong’s Arkansas background:

Norris Armstrong graduated from Fort Smith High School in 1917, he was the president of his class for 3 of the 4 years he was in high school, they counted 9th grade back then. He was captain of the football team in 1917 and had been the captain of the basketball team in 1913. He set a state record for the pole vault in 1916.  I own a 1917 yearbook, it could have been his since my mother bought out his sister’s house after she died. She was Miss Ruth Armstrong who taught science at the junior high for 40 years. We have a small nature preserve and walking trail named after her. His brother Henry Armstrong was a well known successful businessman. Their other brother, Fred S. Armstrong was an Arkansas representative in the 1930s until he was killed in a car wreck in 1938. Their mother Dr.Minnie Sanders Armstrong raised the kids by herself after her husband was killed in a hunting accident in 1905. She was a medical doctor and was the first woman in the US to sit on a jury. There was some sort of long standing connection between Fort Smith’s “better families” and Centre College in Kentucky. I believe his brothers went to Centre too. That’s all I know about Norris. He left Fort Smith for college and never came back except to visit. Hope this helps. Joe [Wasson]

Reader, let me be up front with you. I don’t know how accurate Joe’s statements (it would be pretty amazing if Armstrong was a varsity basketball captain as an eighth-grader), but I do trust the Fort Smith Historical Society Volunteers and Joe appears knowledgeable enough that I give him the benefit of the doubt on most of what he writes. But I haven’t confirmed the above passage.

My next source is Michael Benter, an amateur historian based in Wisconsin who has researched Armstrong because of his brief stint with the now-defunct Milwaukee Badgers’ NFL franchise. I initially contacted Benter, who’s writing a book about the Badgers, for background on Fayetteville native Ben Winkelman, who in 1922 became Arkansas’ first NFL player. He told me that year players from the Badgers played postseason games in Pine Bluff and Fort Smith, games I believe were likely due to Armstrong and Winkelman’s connections. In a loose way, these games would qualify as the first – and possibly only – times NFL teams have played in Arkansas. (correct me if I’m forgetting some long-ago preseason game) [OK, I’ll correct myself – with this post]

We know Winkelman played in the Fort Smith game, and can only assume Armstrong played although he wasn’t mentioned in the local newspaper article about the game, for which the players were divided into teams of “All-Americans” and “All-Stars.” The All-Stars won 21-0 with Ben Winkelman leading them, according to the research of Ashley Hagan, a librarian at the Fort Smith Public Library.

Following is more of Benter’s background on Armstrong:

Norris Armstrong was … considered an “end of unusual speed and determination.” While at the Kentucky school, he caught passes from, blocked for, and took hand-offs from fellow Centre star (and future Milwaukee Badger) Bo McMillin.
In 1923, Armstrong established roots in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, succeeding a former teammate at Centre, Madison “Matty” Bell, as the head football coach at Carroll College of Waukesha, Wisconsin. His Carroll football team of 1924 posted a 6-1-1 record and from 1925-27 Carroll won three straight conference championships.  In 1925, Carroll outscored its opponents 279-2.
Armstrong also coached the basketball team at Carroll and served as athletic director until 1930 when he left the Waukesha school to concentrate on a business venture in the South.
Because of Armstrong’s strong leadership and direction as athletic director and the fact that his basketball and football squads won “nearly 75%” of their games, the Carroll College Hall of Fame added him as a member in 1973.
During the final years of his life, Armstrong lived in Danville, Kentucky, home of his beloved Centre College, where he was “a civic leader and … trustee.”  He died on October 11, 1981 one day before the death of his wife Porter Hudson Armstrong. He was 83 years old.

For more about Arkansas and the Milwaukee Badgers, click here.

Centre 6, Harvard 0, still matters to the central Kentucky college’s students.

College Football Historical Society

VOL. IX, NO. IV August, 1996


By Jim Campbell

Centre College defeated Harvard, 6-0, on October 29, 1921, and seventy-five years later folks — especially in the Bluegrass State — still remember it and talk about it. In 1921 Centre College was a good small college football team; the key word being “small”. In 1921 Harvard was, well, Harvard; a team that had not been beaten since Yale got the better of them in 1916.

What seemed like a mismatch before the game, would be hailed as The Upset of the Century at the final gun. Centre would win, 6-0, and on a certain campus in Danville, Kentucky, the symbol C6-H0 is still visible and still holds a reverential spot.

Centre was not exactly the bunch of country bumpkins they wanted Harvard, and the public, to think they were. They had actually thrown a scare into Harvard the year before, in 1920, playing to a 14-14 tie at the half before dropping the game, 31-14. That loss and a defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech were the only blemishes on the 1920 record of little Centre College. In 1919 some football observers argued that a strong West Virginia University squad was the best team in the country, but Centre knocked off the Mountaineers later that season.

Read the rest of the article here.

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