ODESSA ATHLETICS HALL OF FAME: Watkins built OC rodeo from ground up

Oct. 29—EDITOR'S NOTE — Enjoy this look back at one of this year's Odessa Athletics Hall of Fame honorees. This year's banquet is scheduled Nov. 3 at the Odessa Marriott. Other honorees include track star Kerry Evans, the 1989 Permian High School state and national champion Permian Panthers and Coach Gary Gaines, gridiron great Glen Halsell, football star Lloyd Hill and also the 1946 Odessa High Bronchos state championship football team.

There is no Odessa College Rodeo program without Jim Watkins.

It's that simple.

The program didn't exist except as a club sport when school officials approached Watkins in 1983 at the request of local athletes hoping to continue their rodeo careers beyond high school events.

Watkins was teaching at Crockett Middle School at the time and coaching sons Todd and Ty and daughter Jamie in the arena on the family's property in the evenings.

"They came over to me and asked if I was interested in helping with the rodeo program," Watkins said. "So, a couple of nights a week, after school, the Odessa College students would come over to the house and we would practice until dark because we didn't have lights at that time.

"I didn't have a full-time deal with them until 1984. That's when I really started coaching the team."

All three of Watkins' children would go on to win AJRA (American Junior Rodeo Association) titles, Texas State High School championships, become national high school go-round winners and, eventually, Ty would be the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Rookie of the Year in 1991.

There was another reason that Watkins wasn't available full time ... he was still riding bulls on the PRCA circuit.

Having grown up in the sport through high school in Missouri and then college at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Watkins rodeoed hard in the summer time and then as often as he could during the school year after taking the teaching position with Ector County ISD.

He competed at all the major stops on the PRCA circuit ... San Antonio, Houston, Cheyenne, Wyo., and Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

In the winter, when school was in session, he would compete at an event and then drive all night to be back in time for school the next morning.

"I rodeoed all the time from 1969 until 1984 when I took the Odessa College job full time," he said. "That's when I quit riding bulls.

"I won rounds or placed in the average at most of the major rodeos in the United States and Canada."

Once in charge of the Wranglers' program, however, Watkins hopped off the back of rank, 1,500-pound animals and jumped feet first into building the best team in the Southwest and, eventually, the country.

For his dedication, drive and love of the sport and all the student athletes that have worn the Odessa College Rodeo Team vest, Watkins has been selected as a member of the Class of 2022 of the Odessa Athletics Hall of Fame.

"That's very exciting," Watkins said. "I've been blessed to have a lot of good cowboys and cowgirls come through the program."

Good is an understatement.

During his time at the helm of the program, Watkins recruited a veritable Who's Who in the rodeo world to the Permian Basin:

— Two-time world champion bull rider Jim Sharp of Kermit, the first person in PRCA history to ride all 10 bulls at the National Finals Rodeo (1988).

— Seven-time all-around world champion Ty Murray, who also won two bull riding world championships.

— Jerome Davis, the 1995 world champion bull rider.

— Twin brothers Adam and Gilbert Carrillo, who, along with Sharp, Murray, Davis and a few others, would co-found the Professional Bull Riders and then dominate for a decade, making the PBR Finals each year.

— The late Shawn McMullan of Iraan, a national college champion in calf roping and PRCA National Finals Rodeo qualifier.

— Ryan Gray, a National Finals Rodeo qualifier eight times in bareback, who was Watkins' final national collegiate champion in 2004 in Casper, Wyo.

— Cimmaron Gerke, the 2003 CNFR bareback champion and a four-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier who won the average title in 2005 after riding all 10 broncs.

They, however, are just the tip of the spear, the Wranglers' program truly built on the hard work of the hundreds of young men and women that went through the program to be mentored by Watkins.

After taking over full time in 1984, one arena in the back yard expanded to two and lights were put up.

The rodeo team would head over to the Watkins' property after school, have a meal and then workout until around 11 p.m., when the lights would finally go dark.

The hard work paid off in 1989 when the Odessa College men's team nearly doubled up runner-up Montana State University-Bozeman, 1410.00 to 801.00, to win the team championship at the College National Finals Rodeo.

Murray was the all-around champion at that event, with McMullan finishing second.

Murray won the saddle bronc and bull riding championships and finished third in the bareback event, while McMullan won the calf roping title.

That was also the year Watkins decided to retire from teaching middle school and handle just the Odessa College program as it continued to grow.

Soon, it had outgrown the Watkins' property and that's when fortune smiled on the program yet again.

Herbert Grahm was trying to sell some property in Gardendale, but one of the prospective buyers was talking about turning it into a hog farm.

Grahm, instead, called Watkins to talk about the Wranglers' program and what it needed to grow and offered to donate the West Texas Stud Farm to the program.

"He called and asked if I wanted to come out and take a look at the property," Watkins said, with a bit of a grin. "Did I want to look at the property?

"I went out with the president of the college and talked them into it and we built the arenas. It cost us $59,000 and we did it in 11 days."

1989 was a very good year for the Wranglers.

Watkins would run the program for another 20 years, retiring in 2009 and was honored as the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Coach of the Year.

He was inducted into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame the following year and still travels to local college events to hand out buckles and scholarships through the Jim Watkins Rodeo Scholarship Endowment.

He's also traveled around the world with his wife, KC (Katherine Carol), and showed that the years of making quick decisions aboard bulls can translate to pedestrian events as well.

While in Frankfurt, Germany, for a connecting flight to Italy, Watkins realized that he had a pocket knife on him.

"Every good cowboy carries a pocket knife," KC Watkins said. "But we had forgotten to pack it in our luggage and they weren't going to let him on the plane with it."

It was a gift from his students, so there was no way Watkins was going to part with it.

So, he used a little cowboy ingenuity, knowing that he and his wife would be traveling back through that airport a few days later.

"I hid it in a plant," he said, smiling. "I looked around for a plant that looked like it hadn't been bothered in a while and I stuck it down behind it in the dirt.

"It was still there when we got back."