- Writer: Kathleen Phillips, 979-845-2872, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Contact: Dr. Al Wagner, 979-845-7023, email@example.com
COLLEGE STATION — It’s often said that when one gate closes another one opens. But that can be hard to fathom at 20-something.
Al Wagner had his heart set on wrestling steers and riding bulls and bareback horses on the rodeo circuit while a student at Tivy High School in Kerrville. And that he did — until his Lutheran minister father said no more bulls.
He continued wrestling steers and riding bareback in rodeos through his college years at Texas A&M University — until he married and his wife said no more rodeos. Period.
“I said, ‘But I’m only 26! I could still …’,” Wagner recalled. “But she was right. We were starting a family. And when I quit, I was totally away from it for years. I never even went to a rodeo after that.”
One gate closed.
Wagner earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education, worked in agriculture supply sales for a few years, then returned to school for a master’s.
“Dr. Ed Burns, a professor here at Texas A&M, convinced me that people had to eat and that led to a good career move,” Wagner said. “I got my master’s degree in food technology under him and then was hired by NASA for its space food program.”
Almost five years later, Wagner learned of a food technology job with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, headquartered at his alma mater, and accepted the position with the provision that he would earn a doctoral degree.
At the time, Wagner didn’t imagine that the position, which he held until 2010, would ultimately steer him toward a gate back to the rodeo.
“I work in the area of food safety for commercial food processors,” said Wagner, who continues to work part time and serves as executive director of the Texas Food Processors Association. “We do food safety testing on products of horticultural origin — vegetable-based products such as pickles, jams, jellies and salsas. We basically check not necessarily for quality but for safety, then we provide the information to the processor which they have to in turn file with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to get their process approved.
“So that’s my real job, and the rodeo is something different.”
Different indeed. Wagner was immersed in his career as AgriLife Extension food technologist during the mid-1990s when his years on the Texas A&M collegiate rodeo team bubbled up, and he was asked to be team’s faculty adviser. It was about the time that rodeo was designated by the Texas Legislature as the official state sport in 1997.
The second gate was opened — this time in a way that Wagner could reassociate with the rodeo for a lifetime.
“I’ve been working with them ever since,” he said. “We probably had about 10 kids when I started, and we now have more than 40.”
Wagner said college rodeo is governed by the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, similar to the National Collegiate Athletics Association that governs football, but rodeo participants are allowed to compete on the pro level, including winning money. The college national finals rodeo is held each year in Casper, Wyoming.
In the ensuing years since becoming the Texas A&M rodeo coach, Wagner has shepherded a host of student competitors to the Wyoming event, for which they must qualify after competing in 10 collegiate rodeos. Among his fondest memories is 2002 when a Texas A&M team of just two won the women’s national championship. Jacobs Crawley, another former Texas A&M rodeo team member, just won the world championship in saddle bronc riding.
“I’m called the coach, but I want to make it real clear that moms and dads are the real coaches. They’re the ones that have been with these kids, and most of them started in junior high or earlier,” Wagner said. “I’m up here to keep the paperwork straight. Keep them entered, keep them organized in that direction. I go to every event with them.”
While Wagner was clear on his role, this year his rodeo team made it clear that to them he is much more than an organizer of paperwork. They nominated him via a special presentation to the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, which voted Wagner as National Rodeo Coach of the Year. The City of Casper, Wyoming, also designated it “Al Wagner Day” during the event.
It was the first time a Texas A&M coach — and only the second time for a Southern Region coach — to be handed the national rodeo coach title, Wagner said. Texas A&M has been involved with collegiate rodeo since about 1947. The Southern Region — one of 11 collegiate rodeo regions — includes all of the Texas colleges and universities east of Interstate 35 and two in Louisiana.
“I was just … I cried. It just really meant a lot to me,” Wagner said. “It was just such a thrill.”
Among the reasons for his national honor, according to the students, were the growth of the membership on the team and the increase in scholarships from $5,000 to more than $2 million during Wagner’s tenure as coach. The City of Casper cited his “dedication, positive attitude, hard work, character” and how Wagner “has shown young people that boundless opportunities can exist for each and every individual and assisted many young people in realizing their potential” in its proclamation.
Five members of the Texas A&M rodeo team were present to share Wagner’s celebration.
“Dr. Al has made college rodeo fun for me,” said McKenna Brown of College Station, a senior nursing major at Texas A&M. “He has also made it possible for me to continue rodeoing while attending nursing school. He communicates with my professors and truly cares about our academic success. I’ve also learned to try to keep a smile on my face and to always encourage those around me, because you never know who may really need that extra boost to get them through the day or rodeo.”
“Encouragement” also rang true for team member Jimmie Smith, a junior agricultural journalism major from McDade.
“When you have a bad run, Dr. Al encourages you and pushes you to do better the next time,” she said.
Though participating in a sport demands a lot of time, rodeo team members also cited Wagner’s influence on their college education.
“He makes it possible for me to work hard under the demands of a university as big as Texas A&M while rodeoing as much as I do,” said Hailey Kinsel, a senior agricultural economics-rural entrepreneurship major from Cotulla. “He helps with our schedules so we can be in class and get our assignments done.”
Cade Goodman, an agricultural economics senior from Waelder, agreed. “Dr. Al has been the best coach, teacher and friend to not only me, but everyone who walks through his door,” he said. “He helped me get into Texas A&M and awarded me with scholarships.”
Whitney Thurmon, an agriculture leadership junior from Bastrop, added, “Dr. Al has given me a great opportunity to receive my education at a the best school possible while continuing my love of rodeo. “
Wagner said with a healthy rodeo scholarship pot, his goal now is to help develop a rodeo practice facility at Texas A&M, which has competed in intercollegiate rodeo since 1947 despite the fact that the student participants have to keep their horses and equipment in private stables and practice on their own.
“We’re looking to expand and grow,” he said. “And we’re also talking about having a paid rodeo coach.”
Wagner has served as volunteer rodeo coach for more than 20 years, though he jokingly points out his wife’s observation that “nobody had a gun to your head when you started doing this.”
“I’m hoping we’ll get the practice facility on campus and a paid coach,” Wagner said. “Then I can step down and turn it over to that person and know that this can be in good hands.”