Last Saturday, just a few minutes after the Oklahoma basketball team exited Kemper Arena following its loss to Texas Tech, I made my way back down from the locker room to the press area and noticed a familiar face sitting near the interview room. Prentice Gautt and his wife Sandra were taking a break between games, kicked back and watching some of the action on TV.
In the last few issues of Sooners Illustrated, we've begun running a series of interviews called "Conversation with a Legend" that has included people like Billy Tubbs and Jack Mildren. The upcoming April issue was still missing that key interview when I decided Dr. Gautt would be the perfect candidate.
So we sat down together for a few minutes and discussed all sorts of topics from his past and present. Dr. Gautt appeared healthy and in good spirits and very focused on the future well being of the Big 12 Conference. Sadly, only five days after we spoke, Dr. Gautt unexpectedly passed away at age 67.
The following are excerpts from my interview with Dr. Gautt, who was always the perfect gentleman and always so generous with his time...
Of the impressive list of accomplishments that decorate Prentice Gautt's resume, he would be hard-pressed to pick the one that means the most to him. OK, maybe that's not quite true. Mention the fact the University of Oklahoma named its state-of-the-art academic center in his honor, and watch the smile stretch across his face.
Gautt, who serves as an associate commissioner for Big 12 Conference, experienced his share of glory on the football field, both at the collegiate and professional levels. In fact, he was the first African-American to play for the Sooners. He also has earned a doctorate degree and has served as a role model for thousands of student-athletes over the last 40 years.
Sooners Illustrated editor Jay C. Upchurch caught up with Dr. Gautt at the Big 12 Basketball Tournament in Kansas City recently. They sat down and discussed everything from football to academic to making history.
SIQ: Life after football has kept you close to collegiate sports and further involved you with student-athletes. Is that a source of great satisfaction?
Gautt: One of the things I have learned as I interact with these young folks, many of whom are great athletes and great students, it's not about me - it's more about them and their quest for not only athletic prowess, but better academics. We've been pushing the academic issues and asking them to do a little bit more. We've even talked about strengthening the initial eligibility requirements. As you look at the majority of our student athletes, people don't see that - they really do want to do the work and graduate. A large part of my job is about helping them feel comfortable about being both a student and an athlete, in that order.
SIQ: How does the Big 12 Conference compare overall to some of the other top conferences around the country?
Gautt: When you talk about our overall student-athlete graduation rates and our student body graduation rates, and they are not as high as I would like for them to be or I think they could be. You talk about getting institutions that are like-minded with similar philosophies of academia, and some of our schools are outstanding and they've done great jobs. But overall, we just haven't gotten over the hump yet. We haven't branded ourselves as an academic conference the way I'd like to see happen. So that's a goal.
SIQ: On the subject of academics, what were your thoughts when the University of Oklahoma named its academic center in your honor?
Gautt: As I think about it now, it's still brings back so many emotions. Going to Oklahoma and hearing some of the cat-calls and some of the things about how I didn't belong there, to having that day when they acknowledged that the center had been named after me - that's a 180 degree turn from the things that I remember. It was overwhelming. I haven't died yet and I haven't given that much money, so it's an amazing honor. I feel the leadership at OU is really trying to push and do the right things.
SIQ: Looking back, did you realize at the time how important your role was as the first African-American student-athlete at OU?
Gautt: The only thing that I knew was that I wanted to play football for Oklahoma and for Bud Wilkinson. I didn't think of it as being a pioneering kind of thing. I didn't go for that reason. Once I got there, I had a lot of people tell me that I wasn't going to make it, either academically or athletically. I had to bust my fanny to make it all happen. Bud was so supportive. Gosh, he was supportive. He didn't let me sink. He was constantly telling me 'you've got to be smart, you've got to work hard, you've got to be tough, and you've got to be powerful.' In many ways, I always saw myself as just another football player trying to make it in a great program.
It was never about setting a trend or writing history - it was about football and school and teammates. After a while, things started falling into place.
SIQ: Would you change anything about your time at OU?
Gautt: I think that all of the negative things that happened to me - and there weren't a great many - caused me to be more grateful for the opportunity. And I think it encouraged me, especially based upon the consequences that were a result of those things. Initially, there was a hurt and an anger involved. But subsequent to that, seeing the players' response, seeing some of the faculty's response - I became more comfortable. So the answer to the question is no, I wouldn't change anything. It was an outstanding experience for me.
SIQ: What is the biggest difference in Division I football right now and when you played?
Gautt: The athletes are better today. They are bigger, faster, stronger. You see more athleticism. And every now and then, you see the academic nature of some of these athletes. They manage to stand out in light of all of the pressures they have from participating daily in practices and meetings and games. It amazes me how good the athletes are in today's game. I look at a guy like Adrian Peterson and I see a young man who can do it all. Hopefully, he'll get confidence in his ability to speak up and speak out. He needs to do that.
SIQ: You are obviously still a big sports fan and a believer in the Big 12 Conference. But do you continue to have a soft spot in your heart for the Sooners after all of these years?
Gautt: Neutrality is certainly a key word as you go around and you talk to students and student-athletes within the conference. But obviously I'll always have a significant spot in my heart for Oklahoma because of all the things we experienced together.
SIQ: You are an important piece of the history that makes up Oklahoma football...
Gautt: Yes, but just one piece. We're talking about a program that has consisted of so many great players over the years. Oklahoma football is rich with tradition that has been created by hundreds of players who have worked hard for a common goal and achieved greatness on so many levels. I am proud to be a part of that, but I respect all of the players who came before me and who have come well after I moved on in life. People like Buck McPhail, who passed away recently - I came to OU because of him and others like him.
A final interview with OU legend Prentice Gautt
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