While working the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo as a PRCA staff member, I often noticed a tall cowboy who was working for ESPN as a cable-puller for one of the network’s roving cameras. I thought he looked familiar for some reason, and there was a good reason.
The man I had routinely seen at the end of the tunnel leading to the bucking chutes and announcer’s stand was none other than 11-time World Champion Dean Oliver. Oliver still fills that role for GAC TV, slinging cable through his massive hands and keeping his eye on the action in every event.
The PRCA and the ProRodeo Hall of Fame – in which Oliver was inducted in 1979 – honored him this year with the Legend of ProRodeo award, one of the biggest lifetime achievement honors in the industry. I talked to the humble and unassuming Oliver following the second round of the Wrangler NFR to see what he thought about the honor and the state of ProRodeo, among other things.
I found him to be extremely sharp and dialed in, and he had insightful thoughts on virtually every event. It was clear that the man isn’t pulling cable because he loves doing that, but rather because it allows him to stay close and entrenched in the sport he loves dearly at the world’s grandest rodeo.
“It’s fun watching it all, and it’s great,” Oliver said. “It was my life, and watching the calf roping here is great. These kids are good and fast, and it’s fun to watch them.
“It’s the best rodeo in the world.”
Oliver holds the record for most tie-down roping world titles in rodeo history with eight, and he added a trio of all-around gold buckles. He dominated the sport like no other from 1956-69 and was still winning checks as late as 1979.
The 83-year-old, who looks like he’s 65, wasn’t sure exactly why he was able to dominate so much in those years.
“I’ve often thought about that,” said Oliver, whose first two tie-down roping world titles (in 1955 and 1958) came before the creation of the Wrangler NFR. “I was big enough that I could flank well, and that was my strong point. Also, I didn’t miss many, and I was consistent. You’ve also got to have a little luck and good horses, and I’d practice for hours.
“When I (competed), I did it to win money and make a living. I didn’t think about setting records.”
An unbridled desire, Oliver said, also helped fuel his success.
“You’ve got to be hungry for it, and I was,” said Oliver, who grew up on a dairy farm. “I would do anything it took to win, and you’ve also got to learn to win. There are some guys who can rope, but they don’t know how to win.”
Receiving the Legend of ProRodeo award was a thrill for the easygoing cowboy.
“It was a nice deal,” he said. “It bothered me for a while, because I didn’t know what I was going to say for a month, and I couldn’t sleep. But Randy Corley was up there (on stage) and he helped.
“It’s really nice that cowboys and people I’ve been around were nice enough to give me this honor.”
Rodeo is an almost holy thing to Oliver.
“Rodeo was my life,” he said. “It gave me freedom and gave me an identity. What I am today is from rodeo. There are a lot of great people in rodeo and in the Western way of life, and I love them.”
Oliver, who serves on the Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho, said he is impressed by today’s contestants in every event, and he appreciates the accomplishments they are able to rack up on a consistent basis.
“All of the events are good here, and what some of these horses can do is unreal,” said Oliver, who won the 1961 NFR tie-down roping average title.
When reminiscing about his amazing career, Oliver made a point to mention how much the sport has changed since the days he competed.
“It’s had three or four big changes – money, the type of calves and the way they rope,” he said. “When I roped, we still got off (the horse) on the left. It’s so much easier getting off on the right, and I should have adapted to that more. The first year I won the Finals in Dallas, I won $1,800.”
It was a treat to talk to the living legend, who means more to tie-down roping and the sport of rodeo than he realizes. Mike Johnson, who qualified for 23 Wrangler NFRs between 1983-2008, is one of many tie-down ropers who hold Oliver in high regard.
“He would be the standard everyone looks at, as far as championships won, and he was so dominant back in his day,” said Johnson, who has admired Oliver from his teen years. “The way he lived, the way he trained, his horsemanship and his athletic ability would transition into any era. He could still compete and win today.
“He’s a good role model for anybody.”
Having guys like Oliver around at the Wrangler NFR is one of the things that makes the event so great, and you can’t walk too far without bumping into a world champion at the Thomas & MackCenter. I’m excited to have been able to spend some time with Oliver, one of many people who make rodeo a wonderful sport.