For four years, I worked in the Prentice Gautt Academic Center within the athletics department at the University of Oklahoma. Former OU football player, Prentice Gautt was a powerful presence on the dominant OU football teams of the late 50s and early 60s. He was large, punishing runner, averaging over 15 yards a carry against Syracuse in the 1959 Orange Bowl. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, and, following eight seasons in the NFL he went on to earn his MA and PhD. Even more impressive Gautt on and off field accomplishments occurred during a time where our country was mired in racial tension. Gautt was African-American, the first African-American to play for the powerhouse at Oklahoma, and, at times, the only African-American on the team. A team photo shows a sea of white faces, a whole lot of men with square jaws and crew cuts staring forebodingly at the camera. And then there is Gautt.
At one point, Gautt was the only African-American on OU’s football team (found on Google images)
In my dissertation I devoted a brief interchapter to him, as he not only braved bigotry but excelled on the field and the classroom.
Similar to what I offered about Woodrow Wilson earlier on my blog, this is an all-too brief excerpt of Gautt’s life.
The academic center at OU was named in honor of Prentice Gautt on September 17, 1999. Called by current OU director of athletics Joseph Castiglione “Oklahoma’s Jackie Robinson,” Gautt was the first African-American to play football at OU. He was recruited by legendary coach Bud Wilkinson, and Gautt enrolled in the school in 1956, months after OU won their third National Championship under Wilkinson and two years following the watershed Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Yet despite this important ruling, in Presidents Can’t Punt former OU president George Lynn Cross wrote, “it was said certain influential blacks arranged for him to attend OU on an experimental basis.” Reading Cross’s language, I am not sure what is more startling: the vague “it was said” with an inability to directly provide names; a nod toward viewing Gautt as the proverbial guinea pig with the phrase “an experimental basis”; or that the president of a university is not sure how the first black football player matriculated at OU.
A popular image of Gautt found in various places around OU’s campus (found on Google images)
Regardless of Cross’s troublesome language, Gautt joined a team where running backs were the focus of Wilkinson’s offense, and Gautt, who was already standing out on campus because of his skin color and was already standing out for simply being a football player on one of the best college teams in the nation, was given even more recognition for playing this premier position. According to Gautt’s obituary published in the The Oklahoman, Wilkinson was pressured against giving Gautt a scholarship, so “a group of black doctors and pharmacists arranged to pay Gautt’s tuition” but “within a year, Gautt was given [a]…scholarship.” And media outlets began to speak glowingly, albeit strangely, about Gautt. A March 15, 1959 article in The Oklahoman refers to Gautt, the 193 pound fullback from Oklahoma City’s Douglass High School, as “Oklahoma’s great Negro fullback.”
During Black History Month, SoonerSports.com, the official website of OU athletics, published pieces detailing the lives of prominent African American student-athletes at OU, past and present. In Andrew Gilman’s article “Gautt Paved the Way,” Jakie Sandefer, Gautt’s former roommate, recalls living with the first African-American student-athlete at OU: “Looking back, I didn’t know it was that big of a deal…I talked to him some about it. I asked him about what was going on…And the funny thing is, when I asked Prentice about it, he said…he just wanted to make the team and make his grades.” And Gautt did just that. He excelled academically and athletically. He was a biological science major and member of Omnicron Delta Kappa; he was a member of Company V and the Varsity “O” Club, which committed itself to “Foster[ing] good sportsmanship in all phases of collegiate athletics.” In the 1959 yearbook, Gautt is given the award of top athlete in football. In the 1960 yearbook, his photo is displayed on the “Personality” page alongside five other OU students. Underneath the photo of Gautt and his gregarious smile, reads a lengthy list of his accomplishments on and off the athletic field.
The first three years Gautt was with the Sooners, the team went 30-2, and secured two Orange Bowl victories. He was a three-year letter winner, twice led the team in rushing, a two-time All-Big Eight Selection, and Most Valuable Player at the 1959 Orange Bowl, averaging a shocking 15.9 yards per carry. And all this on the field success, with racism rearing its ugly head off the field. As Cross details,
For several years, [head football coach Bud] Wilkinson and his staff had taken the squad to the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City to spend the night preceding each home game . . . The addition of Prentice Gautt to the OU squad . . . resulted in a change of hotels. Gautt was with the squad at the Skirvin the night before the Iowa State and Kansas game, but protests from hotel patrons led management to inform OU officials that he would not be permitted to stay there in the future . . . The squad stayed at the Biltmore during the 1958 and 1959 seasons. When Gautt’s eligibility ended, they moved back to the Skirvin.
The Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City (found on Google images)
While Cross never provides his thoughts on this unfortunate display of intolerance, he does describe the climate of 1950s Oklahoma, a climate seen in many other states during this time. Even though football reigned supreme in Oklahoma, and even though Gautt was one of the better players on the dearly beloved Sooners, his skin color coded him as inferior. To these complaining hotel patrons, Gautt’s skin overshadowed any of his athletic or academic attributes.
When Gautt graduated from OU, earning Academic All-American honors as a senior, he went on to play eight seasons in the National Football League with the Cleveland Browns and the then-St. Louis Cardinals. Following his stint in professional football, Gautt made his way to the University of Missouri where he earned his Master’s. In 1979, Gautt earned his doctorate degree in psychology, writing a dissertation titled “A Comparison of Winning and Losing Coaches Based on Their Needs and Perceptions.” Now as Dr. Prentice Gautt, he served as assistant commissioner for the Big Eight Conference, special assistant to the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, and secretary-treasurer of the NCAA. Awarded an honorary doctorate by OU in 2003, Gautt passed away on March 17, 2003 and was posthumously given the Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football Award by the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame in 2005. Today, a Big 12 student-athlete post-graduate scholarship is named in his honor.