The Local Olympic Movement: Jacket’s Team USA reigned in Spain

Published 9:44 pm Tuesday, August 2, 2016

This is the fifth in a seven-part series on Olympic participants form greater Port Arthur. Thursday: Amy Acuff

The women’s track and field competition at the 1992 Summer Olympic Games may be as remembered for the continuation of Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s domination in the heptathlon as the emergence of the world’s newest fastest woman, Gail Devers.

Few, though, would guess that a Port Arthur native played a big role in the success of Team USA. (Can you name the head coach for this year’s Olympic track team?)

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Barbara Jacket, though, did not become a coaching great overnight. But the mastery she attained for almost three decades leading the women’s team at Prairie View A&M University was very much useful in guiding some of the world’s best athletes in Barcelona, Spain.

Her rise to coaching excellence is the story of a journey from hard times.

Born on Dec. 26, 1934, in Port Arthur, she was 10 when she joined the softball team at Lincoln High.

“I was born wanting to compete … it was in my blood then and still is, although now it is directed toward my physical education and coaching students,” Jacket was quoted once. Attempts to reach her for this article were unsuccessful.

School, however, wasn’t always kind to her at a young age. She often got into fights and skipped class.

“We were poor,” she said in an online video. “First of all, I had holes in my shoes. I didn’t want the kids making fun of me, and as a result of that, I was playing hooky from school. I’d go and hide in the cornfield until school was out. I just stayed away.”

When Jacket reached high-school age, a basketball coach named Ms. Guidry showed her how she could use sports to better her life. Ms. Guidry was so kind to Barbara that she even bought a pair of shoes for her.

“When you care about somebody, they excel for you,” she said. “Ms. Guidry, she’s a part of my history. What I learned from her, then I passed it on to my track girls at Prairie View.”

Jacket competed in basketball and track at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama under coach Dr. Laura Jackson through her graduation in 1958. Jackson coached the 1956 U.S. women’s track team in Melbourne, Australia.

Jacket’s coaching path, however, did not begin on a track, but in a pool.

Prairie View hired Jacket to coach swimming in 1964 and to organize the women’s track and field program in 1966. Dressing facilities for women were not built into the university’s gymnasium at the time, and scholarships for female athletes didn’t exist.

Still, Jacket built a powerhouse.

From 1965-91, her teams at PV won eight NAIA outdoor and two indoor championships, titles in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (the governing body before the NCAA took over) and U.S. Track and Field Federation, and eight cross country, nine indoor and five outdoor titles in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. She was named SWAC coach of the year 23 times and NAIA coach of the year five times.

Her coaching style was simple.

“When I see kids who have potential that they aren’t developing, I raise hell with them. I push them to do what they are capable of.”

She became the Panthers’ athletic director in 1990 and was the only woman to hold such a position in the SWAC at the time. She retired from coaching in 1991 to devote more time to the Olympics.

Devers was 25 and looking for redemption when she qualified for Barcelona. She finished in the semifinals of the 100-meter hurdles in the 1988 Seoul Olympics while battling migraine and vision, among other health problems. She bounced back from radiation treatment for Graves’ disease and earned silver in the 1991 world championships.

This time, Devers was looking for gold in the 100-meter dash. She edged Juliet Cuthbert of Jamaica by 0.06 second to win the race in 10.82, setting the stage for dominance the Americans hadn’t enjoyed in women’s Olympic track and field since Jackson’s run in Melbourne.

The U.S. women collected 10 medals in Barcelona. Gwen Torrence, the 200-meter winner, teamed with Evelyn Ashford, Esther Jones and Carlette Guidry to win the 4×100-meter relay. Joyner-Kersee won her second straight Olympic heptathlon with 7,044 points and settled for bronze in the long jump, which she had previously won gold in.

Silver medals went to LaVonna Martin in the 100 hurdles, Sandra Farmer-Patrick in the 400 hurdles and Torrence, Natasha Kaiser, Jearl Miles and Rochelle Stevens in the 4×400-meter hurdles. Lynn Jennings won bronze in the 10,000 meters and Janeene Vickers took third in the 400 hurdles.

Jacket also coached internationally in the Pan American Games and the world championships. She belongs in the halls of fame for the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, Drake Relays, Women’s Sports Foundation, NAIA and Tuskegee University.

Sources:; Prairie View Sports Hall of Fame;;; Wikipedia

I.C. Murrell: 721-2435. Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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