Prentice Gautt is a name that holds a special place in the history of the state of Oklahoma. Along with his accomplishments on the field during Bud Wilkinson’s mid-20th century domination of the sport, the pioneering running back’s impact on the university and college football culture holds much more meaning than the 1,301 yards on 235 carries, six touchdowns and an Orange Bowl MVP he racked up through his career in Norman. In 1956, Prentice Gautt became the first African American to play football at the University of Oklahoma.
Andrew McGregor of Sport in American History, who has extensively researched Bud Wilkinson and the Oklahoma program in relation to integration, chronicles in detail the struggle that led up to the day Gautt was finally able to don the crimson and cream, and fellow students who looked like him were allowed to watch him play in the stands. It’s a lengthy piece but definitely worth the read.
McGregor summed up the final leg of the long race to integration:
Beginning in the fall of 1955, OU was finally open to all African American students, regardless of degree program. The same year, President Cross decided to do away with segregation at football games. “We should no longer try to segregate with respect to any University function,” he explained while conceding “we may have some trouble about this, but I see no other way of interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision.”
With the restrictions finally removed, African Americans now had the chance to become both Sooner fans and Sooner athletes. They had access to the pride surrounding OU football that heretofore had excluded them. Integrating both the stadium and the football team granted them access to the emergent Cold War utopia known as Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma.
A decade after Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier, running back Prentice Gautt of Douglass High School in Oklahoma City committed to OU on February 23, 1956. Coach Wilkinson in 1950 announced he would welcome any black player who was willing to try out for the team, with Gautt becoming the first to make the cut after a few others tried out unsuccessfully. Wilkinson wanted to offer the star, also a gifted and industrious student, a full scholarship his freshman year, but due to the expected opposition and vitriol to the idea in a segregated state was pressured out of it. However, a group of pioneering black doctors and pharmacists in the OKC area came together to cover Gautt’s scholarship for his first season.
After another year of persistence, Wilkinson was able to award Gautt a full football scholarship from his sophomore season forward. This significant move also freed up the tuition money the star running back was to receive from the doctors for another African American student to attend the university. Coach Wilkinson famously said his greatest feat at Oklahoma was not his 145 wins, the 47-game win streak or three national championships but rather integrating the football program, which came nearly a decade and a half before rival Texas finally did so in 1970.
Though he’d have to endure much in racially charged, mid-1950s Oklahoma, Gautt finally broke through and became a football star for the Sooners. Relegated to the freshman squad his first year and playing behind upperclassmen in a complementary role through 11 games as a sophomore, Gautt was named MVP of the 1959 Orange Bowl to conclude an All-Big 8 junior season, and was named all-conference and Academic All-American as a senior.
Josh Yonis of FootballMatters.org wrote about Gautt a year ago, months before the 2016 season that would mark the 60th anniversary of the running back’s racial-barrier breakthrough at Oklahoma. In his piece, Yonis outlines Gautt’s accomplishments on the field as well as his lasting impact on OU and the culture of college football, including the high praise he consistently drew from many of his teammates including the great Jimmy Harris.
“If you had a team of Prentice Gautts, you’d have a winner all the way,” former teammate Jimmy Harris told The Oklahoman at the time of Gautt’s passing in 2005. “He was just extraordinary. He was like a sponge, absorbing not just football but culture and living in this world.”
Following his days in Norman, Gautt went on to play seven seasons in the NFL and also coached at Missouri. After football, Gautt went on to earn a master's and doctorate degrees in psychology from Missouri and worked in the Big 8 and Big 12 offices before his passing in March 2005.
Gautt’s legacy at OU didn’t include a national championship but will forever endure at the university. His name graces “The Prentice Gautt Academic Center” for student-athletes, and the conference continues the Dr. Prentice Gautt Scholarship program, which has provided post-graduate scholarships for student-athletes since 1996.
“Prentice Gautt was truly a great person, and he will be remembered as one of the most outstanding graduates in the history of the University of Oklahoma,” President David Boren told the Associated Press. “His moral courage helped to bring racial justice, not only to our state and to intercollegiate athletics, but also to our entire nation.”
Rest in peace, Dr. Gautt. Your story will always be celebrated and never forgotten. Happy Birthday and Boomer Sooner!
A tribute from SoonerSports.com: