Rancher gives college students a chance to learn the ropes

Young Jim Phillips couldn’t decide whether to be a pilot, a cowboy, a teacher or a psychologist when he grew up.

So he did them all.

His resume reads like this: licensed counselor at Eastfield College, quarter horse trainer, calf roper, flight instructor, ranch owner.

It’s pretty good stuff, but even more gratifying is a little class he teaches at Eastfield. Six years ago, Phillips created Dallas County’s only college rodeo course, sort of a Cowboy 101, where students can earn credit in physical education.

“It gives students who have never rodeoed before an opportunity to get in there and rodeo,” Phillips said. “We take students who have never been off the concrete before and we teach them how to do it.”

At Phillips’ Flying Ranch in Poetry, near Terrell, Texas, students can learn such rodeo standards as barrel racing, calf roping and chute doggin’, an event akin to steer wrestling, except it’s done without the horse. The more daring wannabes might be disappointed to know that bull riding isn’t offered, Phillips said. That event makes parents nervous and insurers wary.

“I was always interested in rodeo, but I never had anywhere to go to do anything,” said Brittany Prock of Rowlett, Texas, a former president of Eastfield’s rodeo club. “I went to check it out once, and I loved it.”

Eastfield’s course is unusual in Texas for a couple of reasons, said David Hartwig, a professional cowboy from Quinlan, Texas, who volunteers as a coach to Phillips’ students. Though some large Texas colleges and universities offer rodeo courses and have teams, schools in urban areas typically do not, he said. And, with the competition as intense as, say, football, beginners rarely get opportunities to start at the college level.

“National intercollegiate rodeo is a tough row to hoe,” said Hartwig, known on the rodeo circuit mostly for his performances with his dog, Skidboot. “There’s no reason why these people shouldn’t do it in college.”

About 400 students have been through the course, which now takes in about 30 per semester, Phillips said.

More than half the students this semester are women.

“To me, that’s awesome that a female can do just what a guy can do,” Prock said.

Phillips, 58, is a third-generation rancher who raises horses and cattle. He and his wife, Sue – married for 24 years – have a son, Jason, who is a physician. A former plane salesman, he learned to fly from several family members.

“I had a bunch of uncles who were ex-World War II pilots, and I picked it up from them,” he said. He has offered flying lessons to students on his 250-acre ranch, which has a 3,400-foot crushed limestone runway and a hangar where he keeps his plane, a 1958 J Model Bonanza.

Psychology drew Phillips’ attention when he was an undergraduate student at East Texas State University, now Texas A&M University at Commerce. “Psychology was the only thing I found interesting,” he said.

He roped his first calf at age 54 and has since taken lessons, he said, from the best calf ropers he could find in Texas. Now, Phillips’ students look to him for instruction.

Every Thursday night, Eastfield rodeo students and club members drive to Phillips’ Hunt County ranch, where he puts them through their paces. About 20 students turned out for a recent session. A few have their own horses. For the ones who didn’t, they used Phillips’.

Some, preparing for calf-roping practice, warmed up the horses in a trot around a lighted ring. Others, standing in front of wooden sawhorses, practice roping skills on the stationary target.

Phillips offered students lots of guidance and encouragement. “Pull, flip. Pull, flip,” he called out, as students twirled ropes over their heads. “That really gives rookies the idea of it’s really like.”

“It’s not bad now,” said Elmer Saavedra. “Once it starts moving, it’ll be harder.”

Brandi Crosson of Garland, Texas, practiced roping a sawhorse from a saddle strapped to a 5-foot stand. She had been roping for only three weeks.

“I haven’t roped it, not once,” she said to Phillips. “What am I doing wrong?”

“Get yourself a bigger loop,” he said. “Get it way up in the air and swing it over your left shoulder.”

Crosson later made up for it in the ring, where she wrestled a 400-pound steer to the ground.

“You hook your right arm under his right horn and put his nose inside your left elbow,” she said later. “You turn his head until your butt is touching his side and then you throw your body back into the dirt. If you throw yourself hard enough, he falls. It’s easy.”

The students practiced for three hours, until about 10 p.m. After they were gone, Phillips settled into the driver’s seat of his Ford F-350 for the short drive from the ring to his house. He paused for a moment to reflect, then said to a passenger:

“I am blessed,” Phillips said. “I know it, too. That’s why I try to share it.”