A dozen 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.
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 Hall-of-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.
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 old-school, 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.”
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 beforethe 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 open-door 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.”
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.”