Back When They Bucked with Tom Miller
Written by: Siri Stevens< Back to Articles
From competing in college rodeo, to the PRCA, to becoming a judge and a coach, Tom Miller has left his mark on the rodeo world. Excelling in both ends of the arena, Tom led a rodeo team at Black Hills State University that dominated the National Intercollegiate in the 1970s, winning All Around Champion in 1970 and 1971.Tom was also the Badlands Circuit Saddle Bronc Champion in 1979 and 1980. Tom qualified for the NFR six times and shares the record for most saddle bronc average titles.
Tom was recently inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. His friend and 1974 world champion saddle bronc rider, John McBeth nominated him. “Tom is of the quality of bronc rider that should be in there. He is world championship quality – in fact – one year he lost it by $5.28 – 1981. Everything about Tom is outstanding, from ranching to judging – he has his principles and he holds to them.”
Born in Rapid City, South Dakota, on December 27, 1948, Tom was raised 100 miles from there on a ranch in between Faith and Red Owl, that his dad (JP Miller – Bub) put together. “I was born before the blizzard of 1949 – it took two weeks for them to get me home,” he said. His dad roped calves, but Tom and his older brother, John, never competed until high school. “We stayed home and worked – when we quit in the evening, we would rope. Nobody competed much in youth rodeos back then – there wasn’t the activities going on for the youth like there is now.” His mother (Patsy) didn’t want him riding broncs or bulls so he rode bareback until his junior year in high school. “My folks had gone to Texas and I snuck off to ride a bronc – it was easy. I didn’t get on a bull until I started college.” He learned from the hired man until he met John McBeth. “I was riding broncs pretty good but I didn’t think I was riding them right. So I called John and went to his school. He put me on 16 head in two days and it turned me around. It got me doing things I didn’t know I could do. John is a great teacher.”
He went to Black Hills State University where he competed in every event. “My dad let me take one horse, so I had to do all the events on that horse.” He studied education. “My dad gave me a choice when I got out of college – after I won the NIRA All Around for the World – he said – ‘are you going to rodeo or are you going to come home.’ He said if I was going to rodeo, he was going to sell the place. I went home for three years. I felt like I had to go try it.” He made a deal with his dad. “He said: ‘If you don’t go to the Finals, you go home, put the saddle up and we won’t talk about it.’ He also added he wasn’t a sugar daddy – my dad was black and white, right or wrong, that’s the way it was. When I first cracked out I rode all three events. It was looking like it was going to break me, so I stuck with bronc riding.”
When Tom won the average at the finals the first year, his dad was in the arena and said ‘You can’t quit now can you?’ “I’d spend falls at home and calving in March and April.” He met his wife, Vivian, at a match bronc riding in Texas. He met her again in Fort Worth at a rodeo. “She had a boy’s saddle from South Dakota that she thought he needed it that night. There was only two or three of us there yet – I’d flown in – and she gave me his saddle.” Three years later they were married.
He continued rodeoing, making the finals three more times after their marriage. He was the Badlands Circuit Saddle Bronc champion from 1977 to 1980. He qualified for the National Finals Rodeos six times, and won the average in 1975, 1979 and 1981, coming up short of winning the world title in 1981 by $5.28. He was able to hit multiple rodeos in one weekend due to his traveling partners, Johnny Morris, a bareback rider, and Bobby Brown, a bronc rider, who also had a plane and flew Tom to many rodeos.
Tom broke his leg one fall riding a good horse – doctoring yearlings. “He rolled over me and broke my leg in 1982. I didn’t get on one after that. I was in a cast for quite a while – all winter actually. The screws in my leg made it hard to ride again.” Johnny Holloway, who he worked with for years putting on bronc schools, invited him to a match bronc riding the next year, and one horse laid on his leg in the chute. “I thought the screw heads were going to come through my leg,” Tom said. “I was at the age — I was getting into my upper 30s — where it’s hard to get it back; it took a long time to get over that injury.”
He focused his attention on his ranch, his family; two boys – Jeff and Ryan – and his judging, which included judging five National Finals Rodeos. “When I started judging, there weren’t any judging schools. They started them shortly after that and it’s a good thing. Really familiarize yourself with the rules.” He served on the Rules committee, requested to do so by Shawn Davis.
His priorities shifted again the past couple years, and he has stayed close to the ranch. “My great great granddad came over as an immigrant from Germany – he kept a diary every day. He said the best cow country was in South Dakota – Western South Dakota. He put together 168,000 acres in Coleman County in Texas; he built a boulevard, library and built on to the Methodist Church,” explains Tom. “My grand dad took over management of that ranch at 18. When my dad got out of World War II, he went to South Dakota to find that best cow country.
“I always felt like I had so many big shoes to fill,” said Tom about his family. “My dad flew over the signing of the treaty of WWII – he didn’t tell me that – he flew and was the youngest one in his crew.” He passed away at the age of 85. “The day before, I called him and told him we needed some more cows in Texas. I asked him if he could go and check out some cows for me. He said how about if I sell you my cows. And he knew exactly what they were worth. He died the next day. He was sharp as a tack.”
Tom has carried on that legacy, priding himself in raising good cows and horses. He has been inducted in the Black Hills State University Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Casey Tibbs Foundation. He wants to be remembered as kind and considerate; a good horseman, and a good cowman. “The rodeo part of the deal –I’m getting honored for something I was going to do anyway. My roots are in the cow business and I’d hope to be remembered as one of the better cowboys in our country.”