[OPSU is] not just any community though. It has been rightfully dubbed “Saddle Bronc Capital of the World” due to the continuous outpouring of championship-caliber athletes.Panhandle State Rodeo
The seven national team titles (1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2013, 2017, and 2018) speak to Panhandle State’s tradition of winning inside the rodeo arena, but there is more to the Oklahoma institution than championship buckles. Nestled in the heart of one of the largest agricultural regions, Panhandle State provides students with a first class educational experience in a small rural community. It’s not just any community though. It has been rightfully dubbed “Saddle Bronc Capital of the World” due to the continuous outpouring of championship-caliber athletes.
Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) world champions such as Robert Etbauer, Tom Reeves, Jhett Johnson, Rocky Patterson, Jeff Willert, Taos Muncy and Spencer Wright all trace back to the Oklahoma town. With a large team of roughly 60 students, Panhandle State is a top runner as one of the best collegiate rodeo programs. The regional university has also produced 22 individual championships in every event, with the exception of the goat tying.
The program would not hold the legendary status that it does if it were not for those who dedicated a lifetime to the team and its members. Richard Lynn Gardner, known to many as “Doc”, returned to his alma mater as the head of the Division of Math and Science while teaching chemistry. In 1965, two students asked Doc Gardner if he would sponsor the rodeo team. He agreed to be their advisor until they could find someone else to take the reins. No one was ever found to replace the beloved professor. So, for over 30 years until his death, he was the coach.
Doc Gardner became an icon in the world of collegiate rodeo. His teams were well-respected locally, regionally and nationally. He wasn’t a cowboy, but had a knack for finding talent and persuading them to attend Panhandle State. Due to his efforts, Panhandle State can boast the list of world champions that it does.
Outside of Goodwell, Doc Gardner served as Faculty Director for the Central Plains Region from 1974-1982. He witnessed his young contestants become individual collegiate champions and saw them move on to become world champions on the professional level. During his reign, the highly successful Panhandle State men’s and women’s rodeo teams qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo every year except for once since 1972. He never realized his dream of winning the college national team championship. The year following his death the team finally captured its first title and dedicated the championship to the late rodeo coach. Today, the annual Panhandle State rodeo is named in his honor in addition to the team’s practice facilities.
At the time of Doc Gardner’s death, his assistant coaches were Jim Boy Hash and Bret Franks. Bret Franks assumed the head coaching position and led the team to their first two national championships in 1997 and 1998. Bret is currently the head coach at Clarendon College while Jim Boy Hash leads the Broncbusters at Garden City Community College.
In 1999, Kurt Hall was at the helm of the winning rodeo team and continued the streak by claiming the third national championship in 2000. He continued to coach the Aggies until 2002 when the program was transitioned into the hands of Craig Latham.
Today, the Lynn Gardner rodeo facilities are under the watchful eye of Robert Etbauer who holds the title of head coach. Robert first made his way to the dusty Oklahoma town in 1981 when he was recruited to rodeo under the direction of Doc Gardner, where he helped the team reach its highest placing since its inception; third place at the 1986 CNFR.
Through Robert’s career, he claimed the coveted PRCA World Champion gold buckle in 1990 and 1991. Robert went on to qualify for the NFR 12 times, 1988-1992 and 1994-2000, before retiring from his professional career in 2002.
In 2011, Robert returned to Oklahoma Panhandle State University, this time as Assistant Rodeo Coach to long-time friend and hauling partner, Craig Latham. Latham is considered an honorary brother to the clan of Etbauers who dominated the saddle bronc riding. He made nine trips to the NFR before transitioning from professional cowboy to head of the prestigious collegiate program.
Latham was at the helm of the rodeo program for 12 years, during which the team won two national championship team titles (2004 and 2013) and numerous individual event titles. Not only did Latham inspire students to make high-point rides and fast times, but also put an emphasis on students’ academic careers by encouraging them to graduate in four years and pursue higher education. In 2015, Craig stepped down from his role due to medical reasons and handed the reins to Robert.
In addition to the help of Assistant Rodeo Coach, Shelbie Weeder, Robert relies on the support of many individuals to keep the teams at the top of their game. His brothers Billy and Danny Etbauer help each year with the annual Deke Latham Memorial Bronc Riding School, along with Craig Latham and other rodeo team alumni. Allen McCloy, a former rodeo alum, provides the outstanding bulls and horses for the hometown college rodeo and all the roughstock practices throughout the year. Danny is also on hand at the majority of the roughstockpractices to lend his advice. Robert continues a practice that Craig Latham started by bringing in professional rodeo athletes to instruct rodeo schools for the team members. Robert gives credit to the entire community who supports the rodeo program to the highest degree and is responsible for the team’s success.
The Etbauer brothers will be the first to admit that horsepower is everything. Whether the equine partner is responsible for half the points in the bronc riding or breaking fast to a calf, the success of the cowboy is dependent on the horse flesh beneath him. Robert Etbauer’s family is the owner of an equine athlete that has helped numerous cowboys and cowgirls reach their goals inside the arena.
Rambo, a roan stud, is just as famous as his world champion owner. The powerhouse stallion has been used in multiple events over the years, oftentimes with just a bit change between events. From the tie-down roping, breakaway roping, team roping, goat tying, steer wrestling and hazing, he truly defines an all-around horse. His efforts have not gone unnoticed by competitors as he has been voted Central Plains Region “Horse of the Year” five times.
As spring brings the birth of new foals, there will never be another quite like Rambo. However, just as horses have to be trained to become great, legends are not simply born; they are created through years of work, dedication and passion. Panhandle State has a legendary rodeo program due to those who carved the path to greatness.