The sport of rodeo lost a local icon Wednesday.
Longtime Casper College rodeo coach Tom Parker died of cancer at age 69.
Parker leaves behind a legacy that goes beyond what he did in leading the Thunderbirds’ men’s and women’s programs for more than a quarter century.
“When I first heard the news, the first thing I thought of was just what an incredibly hard worker Tom was,” former Casper College Athletic Director Bill Landen said. “He really cared about those student-athletes and his students.
“It was absolutely remarkable how much time and effort Tom put in on behalf of that program.”
University of Wyoming rodeo coach George Howard, a longtime friend, said Parker was more than a coach.
“Tom wanted to make sure his kids became good citizens and good contestants,” he said. “That’s what he strived for. He’ll leave a lasting impression on a lot of kids.”
Parker, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wyoming, was named the T-Birds’ coach in 1990. He took over a program whose men’s team had won four national titles in the 1960s under the guidance of Dale Stiles, but had experienced limited success since then.
Casper College competes in the Central Rocky Mountain Region, which is consistently one of the toughest of the 11 regions that comprises the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. Even so, three of Parker’s women’s teams qualified for the season-ending College National Finals Rodeo during his first 15 years at Casper College.
It wasn’t until 2011, though, the Casper College men’s team won the regional title and made its first appearance at the CNFR under Parker.
“A lot of memories come flooding back when I think of Tom,” Landen said. “And that 2011 championship team is right up there at the top.”
That team served as the starting point for the rebirth of the men’s program at Casper College.
The men’s team repeated as regional champions the following year and entered this season having finished either first or second in the regional standings in five of the past six years.
Heading into this weekend’s rodeo at Gillette College, the T-Birds’ men’s team is currently sixth in the region. The women’s team is fourth.
Jhett Johnson, who has served as the T-Birds’ assistant coach the past three-plus seasons, knows this is going to be a difficult weekend without Parker.
“Tom had a really good way of keeping the team together,” said Johnson, a former world champion team roper. “Those kids didn’t always love each other, but they respected each other. And Tom loved every one of those kids.”
Johnson will take over the program for at least the remainder of the season, but doing so won’t be easy.
“I worked with Tom for three and a half years and I never thought, ‘Man, I’m tired of my boss,’” Johnson said. “We never had a bad day. We were more than a coach and an assistant coach, we were friends.”
In addition to serving as the T-Birds’ rodeo coach, Parker helped out with the Wyoming High School Rodeo Association, served as the regional faculty director, the roughstock chute boss at the CNFR and was a judge for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“Tom loved the sport of rodeo,” said Dylan Wahlert, a former Casper College bareback bronc rider. “He was a great guy and just a good human being … and he always had a smile on his face.”
That never changed, even when Parker had to haul livestock from land the college rented out by the Casper-Natrona County International Airport to The Arena at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds. Parker told the Star-Tribune back in 2014 he was making the 13-mile round-trip “three to four times in the morning and three to four times at night” every week during the rodeo season.
“His kids knew how hard he worked to make sure they had practice stock,” Landen said. “There were times when something happened that could have put our program behind the eight-ball, but Tom just wouldn’t let that happen. He just put his head down and worked even harder to make sure those kids could practice every day. He was a remarkable, big-hearted guy.”
Parker was also a man with numerous irons in the fire. In addition to his work in the rodeo arena, he served as an instructor in the Casper College agriculture department before retiring four years ago.
“He didn’t stay still very long,” said Johnson, his assistant coach. “He would come out to the ranch and help us work cows and he enjoyed that. He told me, ‘I don’t get to cowboy enough anymore.’”
Parker is survived by his wife, Linda, and sons Jerrod and Ryan. Funeral services are pending.