Tom Miller inducted into National Cowboy Hall of Fame
Red Owl, South Dakota, rodeo legend Tom C. Miller traversed his rodeo career wearing “many hats.” But each one was and will always be cowboy hat.
From high school and college rodeo to PRCA rodeos, to a judge and coach, Miller has left his mark on the rodeo industry garnering him induction into the Rodeo Hall of Fame Nov. 10-11 at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Tom was nominated for this honor by friend and 1974 world champion saddle bronc rider John McBeth.
Miller’s saddle bronc riding career began by way of college rodeo like many rodeo athletes. He claimed National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association all-around champion titles in 1970 and 1971.
“The college deal was easy. I worked every event then. My dad was a cowboy and he said I could only haul one horse,” Tom said. “You did as much as you could on one horse. It was a little different then. During college, I got to trading horses that were specialized for events.”
From college, Tom naturally went on to compete at the professional level and was the 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.
“At the finals in 1981, they announced that Monty Henson had won, but then they called us at the hotel room and told us Tom had won,” Vivian said. “They told us to come back to the coliseum, and actually gave Tom the world championship buckle, but then they said Bobby Berger had won it by $5.28.”
He wasn’t in rodeo just for the money or fame. There were very few aspects of sliding into his saddle cinched down on a bucking horse that Tom didn’t care for.
“I just like everything about it. I like competitions; I like to travel; I like the people; I like the bucking horses; there wasn’t much for a long, long time I didn’t like,” Tom said. “I just liked to see if I could get to the next rodeo, sometimes we did three a day. I liked the challenge from getting there to getting on for a long, long time. I never got tired of it. I love a challenge.”
Tom could often travel to several rodeos in one day largely due to two men: Johnny Morris, a bareback rider, and Bobby Brown, bronc rider, who flew Tom to many rodeos.
Every good thing must eventually come to an end. One fall Tom broke his leg, which was set in a cast, but had to be rebroken and reset, then stabilized with pins. He was invited to a match bronc riding the next year, which he couldn’t turn down. “Johnny Holloway and I had a match bronc ride. I still had pins in my leg and one horse laid on me 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. In the meantime, you lose your edge. I thought the Lord’s trying to tell me something, so I just quit.”
While he was still competing in the mid-1970s, PRCA established a rule that all rough stock contestants were required to either pay $50 or judge one rodeo. Tom didn’t care to pay the fine, so he judged one rodeo, though he didn’t judge anymore for a few more years thereafter.
“Then in 1985, I probably judged a few. In 1985, each contestant in each event picked who they wanted to judge the finals,” Tom said. “Butch Knowles and I were chosen to judge the first NFR in Las Vegas.”
Tom judged many bronc rides after his retirement from rodeo and also coached many bronc-riding clinics, some for a few years with Holloway in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, roughly 35 years ago, as well as some for more than 25 years with Korkow Rodeo in Pierre, South Dakota, and some more with Burch Rodeo Company in Gillette, Wyoming.
“It got to be too much going on. They were fun. I like kids and I like the young horses. It was kind of fun to do, but when you’re getting as many kids as we were getting — 25 to 30 people — it was hard to spread myself that thin. I would get help sometimes, but some of them needed a lot of individual attention.”
Tom noticed changes to the rodeo industry, some good, others less so. The largest change was the money and horses.
“The money is a lot better, and the horses are way, way better. We had good horses then, but they weren’t in abundance. The day money paid about $400 at the first NFR I went to. Now it’s an ungodly amount of money, which is great,” he said. “They’re making horses way, way better, and the bulls are way better. I think change sometimes is good. Some changes I’m not in favor of, and that’s the way it is. When I started, once you left the amateurs, you couldn’t go back. That gives young guys a chance to get better and get confidence. Now, where they can go both sides of the fence, the pros can take the young guys’ money all the time. Once you make that step you should stay there or go back to amateurs full time.”
As the third generation, Tom has turned most of his focus to managing his family’s ranch forty miles from Faith.
“When I was in rodeo, I was 110 percent. Now that I’m ranching, I’m 110 percent. I’ve never done anything I didn’t want to do. There are some things here that aren’t the most enjoyable, but I still enjoy it,” he said. “What a blessing I don’t have to do something I don’t like to do. I think that as long as you’re happy doing what you do, you’ll do a good job. If you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, find something else; you’ll do a lot better job of it.”
Tom and Vivian have two sons, Jeff and Ryan and three granddaughters, all of which are in Texas, Vivian’s home state.
“Jeff is in Texas taking over the ranch that his dad was on, Ryan is in the oil business,” Tom said. “No more money than there is here, if Ryan wants to come back he’s welcome to it and if he doesn’t, he doesn’t.”
Jim Hunt, who ranches in the same vicinity as Miller, traveled the rodeo road at the end of Tom’s career.
“He was devoted to his family, and anywhere we went traveling, bronc riders and cowboys had the highest regard for Tom Miller,” Hunt said. “Hats off to Tom Miller; he deserves all the credit in the world. It’s not just for Tom, it’s for South Dakota as well. We’re proud of him.”