Prentice Gautt is a name that may not be familiar to younger generations of football fans. But the former Oklahoma Sooner, Cleveland Brown, and St. Louis Cardinal running back was a pioneer in the 1950s, becoming the first African-American to play football at OU, joining the team just one year after most racial restrictions were lifted at the school.
Gautt became a two-time All-Big Eight running back, led the team in rushing his junior and senior seasons, and earned MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl. He was named an Academic All-American his senior season.
Although Gautt excelled on the gridiron, he faced many of the same racial obstacles encountered by Jackie Robinson off the field. Many local restaurants refused to serve him and he was not allowed to stay in some hotels with the rest of the team. Gautt also went through verbal and physical abuse at OU, including late hits in practice.
“Certainly, anyone less of a gentleman than Prentice and anyone with less fortitude would have not allowed the black man to have a chance at Oklahoma,” former teammate Brewster Hobby told the Oklahoman. “He was the one to lead it off, and he certainly set the right kind of example for all of us to follow.”
When coach Bud Wilkinson was pressured against giving Gautt a scholarship in 1956, a group of black doctors arranged to pay Gautt’s tuition at OU. However, within a year, Gautt earned his scholarship and donated his tuition money to another black student.
Gautt said that he and Wilkinson never talked about race during his tenure at Oklahoma.
“We never discussed it,” Gautt said. “But one time after we had graduated, he showed me all the hate mail that he had received.”
“(Wilkinson) was a father figure to me. “He was also my psychologist or psychiatrist. He would come up to me and ask me, ‘What’s happening today?’ He would listen to me.” – Prentice Gautt
Gautt was a member of the 1957 team that lost to Notre Dame ending the Sooners 47 game winning streak.
“I Think we were a little complacent,” Gautt said, “But you’ve got to hand it to Notre Dame. They stepped it up and they did what I expected us to do. They got the extra two or three yards, picked up the extra block. You’ve got to hand it to them.
However, many fans blamed Gautt for the loss.
“It bothered me that some people actually said that if I wasn’t on the team, the streak never would have been broken,” Gautt said. “They said that because some players quit and others would leave OU because I was playing. It was ridiculous to think that if I hadn’t played, Bud’s streak could have gone on forever.”
“He went through a lot of tough times, but he was bigger than all of them,” Gautt’s former college teammate Joe Rector told the Oklahoman. “God put him in the right place. He was a great person.”
“I knew him when we were both at Missouri and before I came to OU. Prentice Gautt might be Oklahoma’s Jackie Robinson.” – Sooner A.D. Joe Castiglione
Gautt was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1960 and then traded to the Cardinals for QB John Roach the following season. Gautt became a good two-way back for the Cards totaling over 3300 yards from scrimmage and scoring 17 touchdowns in seven seasons in St. Louis.
After retiring in 1967, Gautt coached football and earned his Ph.D. in psychology at Mizzou. He later became assistant commissioner for the Big Eight Conference and a special assistant to the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference.
Gautt sat on several NCAA committees while directing the Big-12 life skills program, and he was named the NCAA Secretary/Treasurer in 1995. Gautt’s name adorns the OU academic center and in 1996 the Big-12 began the Dr. Prentice Gautt Scholarship program, which provides post-graduate scholarships for student-athletes. He was presented an honorary doctorate from OU in 2003.
Gautt was 67 when he suddenly passed away from flu-like symptoms in 2005. He was posthumously given the 2005 Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football Award by The National Football Foundation(NFF) & enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in May 2005.