FA­THER FIG­URE

John­nie Philipp has cre­ated a legacy of horses, cat­tle, and friends who’ve be­come fam­ily that ex­tends far be­yond his South Texas roots.

Spin to Win Rodeo - - Features - By Julie Mankin

We tip our hat this Fa­ther’s Day to a cow­boy dad who truly has his kids’ backs. John­nie Philipp has cre­ated a multi-faceted fam­ily busi­ness solely within our sport. In fact, he has team rop­ing’s back, in a va­ri­ety of ways. The man who has in­flu­enced the ca­reers of count­less rop­ers has also helped shape the horse and cat­tle mar­kets from his built-from-scratch ranch in Wash­ing­ton, Texas. by Julie Mankin

Adonzen years ago, I spent a win­ter deep in south Texas, where a cou­ple of top-20 team rop­ers prac­ticed. One of them often spoke of a guy he called “Hunken.” It’s an odd nick­name. But the rea­son I took note was that it was said with such rev­er­ence.

In my 20 years pro­mot­ing rodeo, I’ve in­ter­viewed John and Shane Philipp a time or two. Later, I re­al­ized these were Hunken’s boys. Now, I was rev­er­ent, too—be­cause I’ve never met a pair of bet­ter-man­nered or hand­ier brothers.

I was cu­ri­ous. The ap­proach of Fa­ther’s Day seems a good time to take a closer look at John­nie Hunken Philipp Jr.

Af­ter all, the man has spent decades build­ing a ranch from scratch, which is fi­nan­cially im­pos­si­ble. And he’s done it solely through the rais­ing of team rop­ing cat­tle, team rop­ing horses, and team rop­ers. All the while, he’s kept his en­tire fam­ily in­volved, like some­thing out of TV’s Bo­nanza. But de­spite cre­at­ing his own Pon­derosa from scratch, Philipp brings to mind an even more iconic West­ern fa­ther than Ben Cartwright.

“John Wayne,” says Twis­ter Cain, who met Philipp dur­ing a dice game at a 1990s rodeo.

Like the movie leg­end, Philipp is ath­letic and dou­ble-tough; a man of few words who only wants to cow­boy and doesn’t stand for any non­sense. The can-do spirit that John Wayne per­son­i­fied in his Westerns is how Philipp has made a liv­ing with only his spurs and rope since the 1970s.

But the real-life cow­boy who earned a foot­ball schol­ar­ship to Bay­lor also has plenty in com­mon with the late John Wayne him­self, who earned a foot­ball schol­ar­ship to UCLA. Ethan Wayne said his fa­ther never told him “do this” or “do that,” but led by ex­am­ple.

“My dad was tough, but very lov­ing,” he told a re­porter a few years ago. “He was old-school, I don’t know how else to de­scribe it. You never wanted to dis­ap­point him. And he had a ter­rific way of shar­ing his knowl­edge with few words.”

That could be “Lit­tle John” Philipp’s de­scrip­tion of his own fa­ther. And he would know, be­cause John­nie’s love of fam­ily and ranch­ing kept him from chas­ing sports star­dom; kept him close to home. That same home, in fact, is where dozens of head­ers and heel­ers have been in­vited to step on out­stand­ing horses, run hun­dreds of head of steers, and sim­ply im­prove— for al­most 40 straight years.

A good horse

Philipp, 64, caught the team rop­ing bug in the 1970s when he and the likes of Tee Wool­man were mak­ing $1,600 a man at am­a­teur rodeos—far more than was avail­able in the PRCA. It was the era when the TRA and CRA were king of the am­mies and the late Terry Walls and Lester Meier had plenty of open rodeos Thurs­day through Satur­day night. You could al­ways find a jack­pot on a Sun­day af­ter­noon, Wool­man re­calls, and some­body al­ways wanted to match af­ter­ward.

“It was kind of the wild West,” says Wool­man, a three-time PRCA world champ.

At the time, Philipp was train­ing rope horses “from day­light to dark” for the leg­endary Har­ri­son Quar­ter Horse Ranch, west of Hous­ton, and it fos­tered his life­long love of a re­ally good horse. He’s made sev­eral, in­clud­ing a sor­rel called Ru­dolph on whom Wool­man won the Bob Feist In­vi­ta­tional. Turn­ing steers for Jacky Stephen­son, also an NFR av­er­age cham­pion, Philipp won a round at Tuc­son on that horse and was high call at the Tubac rop­ing be­fore it was called the Mike Cervi Jr. Memo­rial.

“I saw Jake [Barnes] at Odessa this year, and we talked about that horse and how good he was,” Shane said. “He was pretty un­be­liev­able; just modern be­fore his time.”

Another bay heel horse they called Chig­ger was rid­den by Stephen­son, Tyler Mag­nus, and Bobby Har­ris—pretty much any­one who came through Philipp’s place and heeled. Philipp also had a half-brother to Switch­blade—a head horse they called Touch be­cause he was a bit “tick­lish.” The horse placed in the 2000 Head Horse of the Year stand­ings.

In the 1980s, the Boult­ing­house place near Llano drew Philipp when guys like Wool­man and Har­ris and Don Beasley and Clay O’Brien Cooper would go there and rope.

“Boult­ing­house bought a buck­skin horse from Hunken that I rode at the Fi­nals one year, and I won the US Open on him,” re­mem­bers Wool­man. “He was a good horse. So was Ru­dolph.”

Another good horse from Philipp would launch the ca­reer of a Hous­ton kid that he took un­der his wing early on.

“I’d spend sum­mers with John­nie,” says Matt Tyler, 54. “He’d come pick me up and we’d go rope and I’d ride horses with him and spend a lot of time with him. He just took a lik­ing to me as a lit­tle kid and taught me a ton.”

Tyler, who’s been in­ducted into the Texas Rodeo Cow­boy Hall of Fame, added that Philipp “was in­stru­men­tal” in him de­cid­ing to rope and be around horses.

“He taught me how to ride, how to use my feet, my hands, have a feel for horses,” says Tyler. “And he al­ways had an eye for them.”

Philipp found Can­non Ball for Tyler. The horse was one of the great­est of all-time, tak­ing a 22-year-old Tyler to some of the first of his 20 straight NFRs and win­ning the first-ever PRCA/AQHA Head Horse of the Year award in 1989.

“I bought that horse sight-un­seen, on the phone, be­cause I trusted John­nie enough that I just took his word on it,” Tyler says.

Cow­boy blood­lines

John­nie Jr. not only in­her­ited his dad’s first and mid­dle names, but also a pen­chant for keep­ing lots of irons hot. The late John­nie Sr. was a county com­mis­sioner and ran thou­sands of head of cat­tle in south Texas, while also owning a con­struc­tion busi­ness. John­nie—the mid­dle of five boys—veered to­ward the cat­tle.

To­day, he and his wife, Kathy, and their ex­tended fam­ily run about 2,000 head of Cor­ri­entes, op­er­ate a full-time rope-horse breed­ing and train­ing pro­gram out of some 50 brood­mares, and are in their third decade pro­duc­ing sev­eral se­ries of team rop­ing jack­pots. They also com­pete in the WSTR and USTRC. To­day, John­nie has a 6-Elite num­ber on both ends, while John is a 9-Elite heeler, and Shane an 8 header.

Back when he came of age, Philipp’s dad had ex­pected John­nie to keep play­ing run­ning back. He went ahead

to Bay­lor, but cat­tle and horses called him home early. Around 1978, he was train­ing rope horses for the Har­ri­son Ranch when Bum Philipps showed up at his house and asked if he could hire him to ride some horses.

The Hous­ton Oil­ers coach had gone up to the Wag­goner Ranch and bought him­self 15 head of mares; he needed a hand. Philipp, then 22, went to work for Phillips rid­ing colts.

“I was about two years into work­ing for him when he de­manded to know why I hadn’t told him I’d played foot­ball,” Hunken says. “I told him, ‘You needed some­body to ride horses.’”

The NFL coach co­erced his ranch hand into show­ing up at the field­house to run 40 yards. When John­nie clocked a 4.42 that day, he was sent straight to Oil­ers train­ing camp in San An­gelo. Philipps was ready to sign his horse trainer, even though he’d al­ready drafted fu­ture Hallof-Famer Earl Camp­bell.

But John­nie had al­ready de­cided in col­lege he’d rather be horse­back than play ball. So he ditched train­ing camp and broke colts for Phillips for two more years.

He mar­ried Kathy, and they bought 100 acres in Bren­ham, where they live to­day.

Open in­vi­ta­tion

The Philipp’s ranch in Texas has had its doors thrown open to cow­boys from the get-go—es­pe­cially in late win­ter to teams en­tered in RodeoHous­ton or Austin. Some have stayed a week­end; some have stayed years.

“He’s pretty gen­uine and he’s old­school, if that makes sense,” Shane says of his fa­ther. “He tries to help ev­ery­body.”

A young Tyler Mag­nus lived at the Philipp place for years. The pair made horses and made money en­ter­ing up.

“In 1980, I kept track and I won right at $100,000 ba­si­cally at am­a­teur rodeos,” Philipp says. “Tee and Leo won the BFI that year, and Tee still didn’t win more than I did. I stayed home, and he wore out a truck and horse.”

Now it’s the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion’s turn. Eigh­teen-year-old Tru­man Mag­nus is one of the lat­est boys to move in at Hunken’s place.

“Tru­man fell in here about a month ago,” says Philipp. “He’s real quiet and has a lot of Tyler’s man­ner­isms. We have him rid­ing seven or eight horses a day.”

Per­son­ally, Philipp’s coach­ing style is soft with any kid.

“He’d al­most let you get into it and fig­ure it out,” says John, “He might say, ‘I wouldn’t do it like that.’ A lot of times we’d try it any­way and that wasn’t the best way to do it.”

Shane re­mem­bers his dad didn’t give lessons as much as pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion and turn the boys loose with it, cor­rect­ing them if they needed it.

“If he did cor­rect you, you were go­ing to re­mem­ber it,” says Shane.

In Matt Tyler’s opin­ion, Hunken is as good a rope-horse trainer as there is, or has ever been. But he agrees about the Texan’s hard side.

“John­nie’s very highly re­spected in his ath­letic abil­ity and tough­ness,” Tyler said. “He’s gen­uinely a sweet-hearted guy. But if you flip the switch, you bet­ter get back.”

Home fires

No one ar­gues that Philipp had what it took to win rodeo­ing, same as his old Texas trav­el­ing bud­dies. But he didn’t go. They as­sumed he hated be­ing in the pickup.

“I ac­tu­ally didn’t mind the trav­el­ing,” Philipp says. “But no way I could stay gone. John was a baby.”

That was 1979. Twenty years later, Hunken did end up ven­tur­ing out on the road—for one rea­son.

“John was head­ing for Trevor, and I didn’t want him to be out there in the mid­dle of that by him­self,” Philipp says. “Nick Row­land was here that win­ter, huntin’ a part­ner. I fig­ured, ‘I’ll go to a few of these, just to make sure John is okay and kind of be there with him.’ Nick and I took off and ev­ery time we’d go, we’d win. I was like, ‘I’ve got a ranch!’ So we’d come back a lit­tle.”

They came back just a hair too much. Philipp, then 46, and Row­land, about the same age as 21-year-old Lit­tle John, fin­ished the 2000 sea­son one team out of the top 15, de­spite win­ning the in­au­gu­ral Wran­gler ProRodeo Tour Sum­mer Fi­nale in Mesquite. Philipp had won the Fi­nale be­fore gold-buckle greats Speed Wil­liams, Jake Barnes, and Matt Sher­wood won it, and raked in $33,000—but it was the year be­fore the PRCA de­cided to count it to­ward the world stand­ings.

“John­nie was great,” re­calls Row­land, now a hos­pi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tor in Antlers, Ok­la­homa. “I moved in with Philipps and lived there two years. It was great for me to get to stay there and train horses and rodeo. They took me in and let me ride their horses, like Steel Trap. The whole fam­ily was good to me from Day One.”

Philipp speaks sim­ply about his open­door pol­icy.

“Some of these boys are just trav­el­ing through,” he said. “They know they’re wel­come. We rope a lot and you can get cat­tle in the big round pens and you can fix your horses. We can gather 100 head of steers, easy, and we’ve got jer­seys for these 3- and 4-year-old colts.”

Two gen­er­a­tions of back-and-forth fa­ther fig­ures and friend­ship have been epic. Philipp has turned steers for Bobby Har­ris to help him make the Fi­nals; Har­ris men­tored Lit­tle John; Lit­tle John lent Har­ris his great horse to win the Cheyenne Frontier Days; and Har­ris’ son, Ryan, spent a spring sea­son stay­ing with Hunken.

“The men­tor­ing part with John­nie is huge,” Har­ris says. “Lots of peo­ple have gone through and worked for them and stayed and roped, and he’s had an in­flu­ence on their rop­ing. He’s real quiet, but when John­nie talks, you lis­ten.”

Rais­ing cow­boys

When I ask her sons how Kathy han­dled dozens of cow­boys lin­ger­ing for years at her ranch, Shane laughs and says, “she prob­a­bly just put ’em to work.” And John­nie says his wife is sim­ply strong.

“She’s go­ing to call it pretty quick if it’s not right,” he says, “but she’s on your side, no mat­ter what.”

Their old­est, John, showed zero in­ter­est in rop­ing. At 13, “I made him help me,” re­calls John­nie. “I told him, ‘You’re go­ing to get on some horses.’ He ended up lov­ing it.”

Shane’s been horse­back along­side his fa­ther daily since he was 4 years old.

“John­nie didn’t push them into any­thing,” re­mem­bers Row­land, now a fa­ther of two. “He wasn’t home-school­ing them and all they got to do was rope, you know? If they wanted to do it, fine. I re­spect that be­cause my dad was the same way.”

John­nie and Kathy were big on ed­u­ca­tion and sent both boys to col­lege, but ranch­ing lured them home early. John, now 39, has kids Jade, 10, and Jocelyn, 8, with his wife, Whit­ney, and they live on a place they bought in Nor­mangee, while Shane, 31, is sin­gle and spends most days work­ing cat­tle with his dad.

“John owns 700 or 800 head of cows him­self right now,” re­flects a proud John­nie. “But he’s still part of the ranch. And he’s rid­ing 30 head of horses with two boys work­ing for him.”

John­nie knows he got his sons started, but he also knows they’ve done what they wanted. As for rodeo­ing, the brothers ducked out a bit. But these days John is mostly home, tend­ing his busi­nesses and his kids—fol­low­ing John­nie’s ex­am­ple.

“Shane, I think he’s one of the bet­ter head­ers out there,” John­nie says. “I’m telling you, he could go any­time. But that’s his call. He knows we’d take care of things here. His mama and me both sup­port him 100 per­cent.

But Shane doesn’t seem in­clined to go much—also tak­ing af­ter his dad.

“It just seems like once you’re out there, ev­ery­thing at home is try­ing to pull you back,” Shane ex­plains. “I prob­a­bly came home when I shouldn’t have, when I was get­ting bet­ter. But it’s hard to stay gone like that; some­times you need to be home.”

The en­tire ex­tended fam­ily pitches in at the jack­pots they pro­duce; and at mak­ing the head and heel horses; and at sort­ing, sell­ing, and leas­ing the cat­tle ( philip­pranch.com).

“Dad loves to ranch and train horses,” John said. “He never re­ally cared about leav­ing. He could stay home and ac­tu­ally put some­thing to­gether. Team rop­ing was still his busi­ness, even though he wasn’t rodeo­ing. It’s al­ways just been our way of life.”

John­nie has strate­gi­cally bought and sold parcels of grass for al­most 40 years—un­til he could scat­ter his thou­sands of cat­tle across his own prop­er­ties and some 12,000 acres he leases. He’s es­pe­cially ex­cited about his re­cent pur­chase of a 3,000-acre place in Huntsville where, even­tu­ally, he’ll fi­nally have each mem­ber of his fam­ily close and will build an in­door arena.

“Team rop­ing—our whole deal re­volves around it,” John­nie ex­plains. “It’s just some­thing we do ev­ery day. Ev­ery day, we’re horse­back. I think it’s just in your blood.”

PHILIPP AND JACKY STEPHEN­SON IN 1990 AT THE FI­ESTA DE LOS VACQUEROS IN TUC­SON, ARI­ZONA.

PHILIPP AT THE 2017 WORLD SE­RIES OF TEAM ROP­ING FI­NALE (TOP); WITH JOHN AND SHANE (BOT­TOM)

PHILIPP AT THE 2012 WINDY RYON (TOP); AT HOME ON THE RANCH IN 2018

THE ICONIC PHILIPP BRAND (TOP); THE PHILIPP FAM­ILY AND FRIENDS MOV­ING THEIR HERD OF NA­TIVE COR­RI­ENTES (BOT­TOM)

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