Several years ago, I was commissioned to write profiles on a number of players for inclusion in a book on the 50 Greatest Players in Oklahoma Football History. Here is the story on Greg Pruitt, the first great wishbone halfback.
The football fortunes of Greg Pruitt may have been determined by a phone call to his mother during his sophomore season at Oklahoma.
Pruitt had been a starting wide receiver at the beginning of the 1970 season, but when OU made the decision to change to the wishbone prior to the Texas game, he suddenly became a backup at running back, because there was now only one wide receiver on the field. Pruitt had worked hard to gain a first team spot as a receiver and the change had him thinking about leaving the Sooners – until he phoned home.
“My mother would usually rant and rave if you said something that didn’t make sense”, said Pruitt. “But when I told her I was thinking about transferring, she just calmly asked me if I had a pencil and paper.”
When Pruitt told her he did, she told him to write down a phone number. It was in the 713 area code, the area of Houston where Pruitt grew up.
“I asked her whose number it was and she told me it was my uncle,” remembers Pruitt. “She said ‘I didn’t raise any quitters and if you can’t stay with him, you’d better find someplace to go, because you can’t stay here when you come home’.”
Pruitt quickly decided to reconsider and remain at OU. Three weeks later, starting halfback Everett Marshall was injured against Iowa State, Pruitt took over his spot and never looked back, becoming a two-time All-American and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
With a sprinter’s speed and the ability to make tacklers miss, it was a wise decision to get the ball in Pruitt’s hands in the open field. And the wishbone offense accomplished that.
“What intrigued me about the wishbone is that if you wrote it down on a piece of paper, it looked easy to defend”, said Pruitt. “But the mistake people made is that if you take a quarterback, fullback and halfbacks that are running 4.4. and 4.5, the wishbone is very difficult to stop. Most people realized that too late.”
“What really made it work for running backs is that you really didn’t need a lot of carries to make a lot of yards. Even though we had what amounted to four runners in the game, it reduced the number of carries they needed because we were ripping off big gains once you broke the line of scrimmage. You don’t see many guys complain about how much they’re getting the ball if you’re able to make 125 to 150 yards a game.”
Early in the 1971 season, Pruitt gained notoriety for a t-shirt that he began sporting that said “Hello” on the front and “Goodbye” on the back. Flashy and fun loving, most people assumed Pruitt had come up with the idea himself as a way to taunt opponents. But he claims it was actually the young offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer, who originated the idea.
“Coach Switzer gave me the shirt the week prior to the USC game. On my way to the dorm, some reporters with cameras stopped me and took a picture of the shirt. I’m sure Switzer set that up,” laughed Pruitt. “In the locker room, he told the team about the shirt and said the story would be on the Trojans bulletin board the next day. He said it better be hello and goodbye on Saturday – and it was.”
The Sooners knocked off #1 ranked USC 33-20 in Norman, and after that, Pruitt wore the t-shirt under his shoulder pads from then on.
During the 1971 season, Pruitt rushed for 294 yards against Kansas State, still a school record. He finished with 1,665 yards that season, averaging an NCAA record 9.1 yards per carry and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, as Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan won. Pruitt then got a measure of satisfaction as the Sooners beat Auburn, 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1972, Pruitt seemed destined for another 1,000-yard season and a shot at the Heisman, but he was injured late in the year and finished with 938. Still, he finished second in the Heisman voting to Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and was named the Player of the Year by the Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.
“Individually, what I accomplished as a player, I did it against the best teams in the best conference at the time and against teams that were ranked in the top five”, Pruitt said. “We had great talent and we were beating a lot of people badly, but we knew in big games we felt the pressure to perform. We knew we couldn’t just show up and win.”
Despite his collegiate acclaim, Pruitt wasn’t taken until the second round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, he made the team as a kick returner – a job he was “fired” from at OU after he fumbled the first punt he attempted to return in a game against Texas. In fact, he made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner his first two seasons in the NFL before finally becoming the featured back in 1975.
For three straight seasons, Pruitt rushed for 1,000 yards and also served as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Two more Pro Bowl seasons came in 1976 and 1977, as he became one of the most popular players in Cleveland history. He eventually became a third-down pass catching specialist before being traded to the Raiders in 1982, reviving his career as a punt returner with another Pro Bowl season in 1983 and winning a Super Bowl championship before finishing his NFL career in 1984. In 12 seasons, he had amassed over 13,000 all-purpose yards.
“I think my style prolonged my career, because I never let people have good shots at me”, said Pruitt. “I didn’t have to take many hard hits. And the ability to adapt that he developed at OU also helped extend his value in the pros “I think at first, in college, and later in the pros, I just wanted the opportunity to handle the football. How I got it didn’t matter, whether it was running or catching a pass or running back kicks. “
Pruitt has returned to Ohio, running a residential construction firm that specializes in home inspections and repair for real estate transactions, and he keeps a close connection with the Cleveland franchise. He travels to road games with the Brown Backers organization, a fan club of the team, and he has participated in everything from salmon fishing to turkey hunting with them. For Pruitt, remembering fans’ loyalty is part of the obligation for a star athlete, even after retirement.
“I’ve always said I would have been anything without the fans”, said Pruitt. “I played in front of the greatest pro fans in the world in Cleveland and I played in front of the greatest college fans at OU. It made a difference in my career. I didn’t get to meet all of those people when I was playing, but now when I get to speak at the Brown Backers events, I truly enjoy it.”
Another thing Pruitt still enjoys is following the Sooners. His brother still lives in Choctaw and Pruitt attended two OU games last season. When Bob Stoops was hired to coach the Sooners, Pruitt drove from Houston to Norman to meet the new coach. And he immediately saw something familiar in the current Sooners leader.
“He is closest to what Barry (Switzer) could do. He has charisma, he can get players fired up, the fans love him and he can be a friend to the players but not get too close. I like him”, Pruitt said. “But I guess I refuse to believe I’ve gotten that old, because he doesn’t look old enough to be the coach.”
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GREG PRUITT
What was your most memorable moment as a Sooner?
The first time I played against Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1970. One side red, one side orange, split right down the middle. I still remember the preparation, the buildup, and the intense practices. Our expectations were not high that first time, but even though it was overwhelming and intimidating, we were prepared. Of course, the next two years had a much more satisfying experience, but the first time on that field was really electrifying.
What was the lowest point during your career as a Sooner?
Losing the 1971 Game of the Century to Nebraska. Despite losing just one game all season, we lost at the wrong time. It’s interesting that the game has become recognized as one of the greatest of all-time and every time I turn on ESPN Classic they’re playing it over and over.
Which former teammate means the most to you today?
Kenith Pope. We were thrown together as roommates back then, and we have stayed in touch and remain good friends. I talk to him quite a bit. Really, there were a lot of great friends on those teams, but he is the one I’m closest to.
Who was the best teammate you played with as a Sooner? What made him so good?
There were so many good ones, but offensively, it had to be Joe Washington. He was just a freshman when I was a senior, but we were roommates on the road. It was interesting to see the greatness in another player, how he prepared and performed. He understood the game and paid attention to how the momentum of a game was going.
What attribute did you learn while playing at OU that made a difference in your life after leaving the university, whether it is as a pro athlete, in the business world, or just everyday living?
The difference in being good and great. That you couldn’t just rely on natural ability. You were taught a great work ethic that carries on to everything you do in life.