University of Wyoming rodeo coach George Howard, who won numerous championships but was known more for his patience and his love for his family, died Sunday.
Converse County Coroner Ross Gorman said Thursday that Howard’s death “probably was” the result of a gunshot wound he suffered on Nov. 24 in an area southwest of Douglas.
It was the latest loss suffered by the college rodeo community in the past year.
Howard’s death came just eight months after longtime Casper College rodeo coach Tom Parker passed away from liver cancer. Together, Howard and Parker had coached in the Central Rocky Mountain Region for a combined 46 years.
Howard, 59, had been at UW for 20 years, during which time he coached the Cowgirls to two national championships (2007 and ’09) and eight CRMR team titles, led the Cowboys to three Top-Three finishes at the season-ending College National Finals Rodeo and four CRMR team titles. During his 35-year coaching career, Howard also was a part of five other national team titles while coaching at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College and as an assistant coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
While the accomplishments are impressive, there was more to Howard than winning championships.
“When I think of George I will always remember him in our practice arena, because that’s where I spent the most time with him,” said Nikki (Steffes) Hansen, who was on both Cowgirls’ national championship teams and was a two-time CNFR all-around champion. “He was there every day and he gave us every opportunity to practice and be great. But he also made sure we were going to class.
“He was more than a coach, he was a mentor, too. We weren’t there just to rodeo, we were there to get our degrees and be successful adults.”
Billie Sutton, who was on the UW men’s team from 2002-06, has similar memories of Howard.
“I remember that he always went out of his way to help you out,” said Sutton, a South Dakota state senator who announced his candidacy for Governor of South Dakota in May. “George was always out at the arena if you needed him to be. He would run cattle, open chutes, whatever you needed him to do. You could always count on him.”
Howard also played a role in bringing the CNFR, the college sport’s showcase event, to Casper in 1999. Howard never talked about that, though. In fact, during most regional rodeos, he would prefer to watch from the stands alongside his wife, Julie.
“The thing I remember most about George was that he loved his family,” Casper College rodeo coach Jhett Johnson said. “He was somewhat of a quiet guy, and he was tough with his rodeo kids, but he was always willing to help them out.”
Hansen, who was on her way to Laramie for Saturday’s memorial service with her husband and 8-month-old daughter, said there was one piece of advice from Howard that stuck with her over the years.
“He always told us, ‘Go have fun. Don’t try to beat yourself, just go out and have fun.’
“Even before I competed at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2012 he called me and told me, ‘Nothing’s changed. It’s 10 rounds instead of four rounds at the CNFR, so just go out and have fun.’”
She placed in two rounds at the NFR that year, finishing ninth in the world standings.
Sutton, whose rodeo career was cut short when he was bucked off a horse in 2007 and paralyzed from the waist down, offered another piece of advice from Howard.
“He always believed that there was a better day ahead,” Sutton said.
Sutton said that came to light during his sophomore year when he entered the short go-round second in the saddle bronc riding standings with UW in the thick of the team race.
“I missed my horse out, got a no-score and ended up ninth,” Sutton said. “If I would have marked my horse out I would have won the nation in saddle bronc and we would have won the team title. I took it hard that I had let myself down, but I also felt like I had let the team down.
“I can still remember George saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. There’s another year, another rodeo, and we’ll get ‘em next year.’ A lot of people might have been upset and frustrated, but that just wasn’t his demeanor.
“For George, there was always another rodeo. It was always more important to him that we improved as people. It wasn’t just about winning.”