Tucked away in the rolling, grassy hills outside Laramie, a handful of cowboys practice their roping skills in a good-sized outdoor arena.
There’s something about growing up competing in rodeos all your life. It never really leaves your blood. The competitiveness stays with you.
Like his earliest days competing in Little Britches rodeos all the way through college, University of Wyoming rodeo Coach George Howard still competes in his age bracket in team roping jackpots throughout the year with some of his local buddies. He practices constantly, knowing that’s the way to stay sharp and improve one’s skills.
“Growing up, I competed in every event except saddle bronc riding. My mom was afraid I was going to get hung up on a stirrup,” he says.
Natural competitiveness is what drives Howard to pursue that elusive title in a sport he has coached for 30 seasons.
The ever-smiling Howard never seems to have a bad day. In his folksy way, he believes that he always has “the horses” to win a national team championship. That’s his goal each season.
The UW rodeo teams have a rich history, not only regionally but nationally as well. As long as there have been cowboys and cowgirls, the university has been competitive.
The Cowgirls have won four National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championships, with two Howard coached teams winning in 2007 and 2009. The UW women have finished in the top 10 nine times. The UW men’s team has not won a championship at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) since the early 1960s—the closest Howard’s men’s team has come to winning it all was a second-place finish in 2003, and he has had four top 10 squads.
That doesn’t mean that both UW’s men’s and women’s teams haven’t been competitive during that time period.
Longtime UW rodeo Coach Pete Burns always had tough teams. Howard has built on that tradition.
Howard has coached eight Central Rocky Mountain Region (CRMR) championship women’s teams and four runner-up clubs during his 16-year career at UW. The Cowboys have captured four CRMR team titles and four runner-up trophies under his watch.
He’s also had six individual CNFR event champions—two-time goat-tying winner Kaycee Nelson of Buffalo, S.D.; goat-tyer Sarah Mulholland of Richland Center, Wis.; breakaway roper Amy Shepperson of Midwest, Wyo.; team roper Tyler Schnaufer of Pueblo, Colo.; and the late steer wrestler Levi Wisness of Keene, N.D.
One Cowgirl won a pair of national all-around titles—Nikki Steffes from Vale, S.D.
Howard has done it by recruiting student-athletes he knows are of good character, and most have grown up on family-owned ranches where they know the meaning of hard work. Many have an agricultural background.
“First, I look for those students who I know will pass their classes and who are dedicated to getting an education,” he says. “I’m more excited for them to achieve their degree than winning a national championship.”
Many of his team members have gone on to lucrative careers in ag-related fields, but Howard has also coached future doctors, attorneys, teachers and other professional positions. He’s had some hidden gems who were not only great performers in the arena but also academic All-Americans—15 individuals, including the women’s all-time leading scorer Steffies, who earned the award five times. She was on the UW President’s Honor Roll (4.0 GPA) each semester at UW.
“We’ve had good success getting good students here,” Howard says. “I think it goes back to the state’s tradition that hard work is what sets his rodeo team members apart from other athletes. Many of the students have pickups and trailers to haul their horses and equipment from rodeo to rodeo throughout the year. It’s not uncommon for them to shell out $150,000 for all that equipment. The UW students, like their national counterparts, rodeo almost year-round.
That dedication is what helps teams succeed on the national level.
“It’s really tough to win a national championship because there are so many variables that go on. Everything has just got to be perfect to win it. You really got to earn it. My goal is always to win the nation,” Howard says with that ever-present smile.