The Silver Anniversary

by Ted Harbin

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma’s capital city is much different than it was in January 1991.

There’s an NBA franchise in town, and the 89ers became the RedHawks and are now the Dodgers. Gary Gibbs was in his third season as coach of the Sooners football team, Eddie Sutton was running the Oklahoma State basketball program and Bryant Reeves was a senior at Gans (Okla.) High School.

The downtown landscape has changed dramatically, rising into the heavens. But one thing has remained constant: The International Finals Rodeo is a January staple, now in its 25th year in Oklahoma City. IFR 45 is scheduled for Jan. 16-18 at the Jim Norick State Fair Arena.

“I actually didn’t qualify for the IFR the last two years in Tulsa,” said Dale Yerigan, general manager of the Oklahoma City-based International Professional Rodeo Association and an 11-time steer wrestling world champion. “When I found out that the IFR was moving to Oklahoma City and that the money was going to increase, that’s one of the things that helped me make the decision to focus on rodeoing in the IPRA.”

It’s a good thing he did. Yerigan won IPRA gold in 1985-86, then regained that championship form in Oklahoma City. Clarence LeBlanc won the 1990 championship at the conclusion of IFR 21 in January 1991, and Yerigan took over the IPRA’s bulldogging world for nine straight years after that, winning the titles for the 1991-1999 seasons – because the IFR is in January, champions care crowned for the previous calendar year; the 2014 champs, for example, will be crowned in a few weeks.

“In the 1990s, I had a streak of winning world titles, and a lot of that was because of the move to Oklahoma City,” he said. “The future was one of the things that helped me make my decision and my focus. It was easier on my family to rodeo together.”

As the IPRA general manager, he shares his time through the weeks between business at the office and his home in Pryor, Okla., which is about 155 miles northeast of the IPRA office.

The 1991 IFR took place in what used to be the Myriad, now the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City. It moved to Jim Norick Arena shortly thereafter and has had a long run in that storied facility at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. In 2004, the IFR took place inside the Ford Center, which is now Chesapeake Energy Arena.

“The move back downtown to the Ford Center was sponsor-driven, but it was a new facility, and you hope it sparks some new interest in your event,” Yerigan said. “Now they host an NBA franchise, which is no small fete in mid-America.

“We’re glad to be back at the fairgrounds, and I believe it’s the best facility for us. We want to grow there.”

Growth has been steady, and it comes with the help of key sponsors like Love’s Country Store, RAM Trucks, Tener’s, Graham’s, Oxbow Tack, OG&E, Langston’s, Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Harrison Manufacturing. Of course, it also helps that fans have come to expect a strong production from the annual January showcase.

“Like most of rodeo, we’ve changed some over the years,” Yerigan said. “The competition part of it is still based on the same things it was founded on, which goes back to ranch competitions. We preserve that really traditional part of it. Us, along with most rodeos, have tried to update with the times with the kind of music and the lights we use.

“Rodeo’s a little bit louder than it was 25 years ago, but people have come to expect that. We try not to go too overboard. We try not to make it a rock concert but try to step it up and liven it up. Production has become faster, and we want to see things quickly.”

At the IFR, the competition is mixed with excellent production to make for a night of family-friendly entertainment.

“We have whittled this down to the top 15 that come compete,” he said. “You get to see the same 15 compete every performance for four performances. Whether it’s Friday night or Sunday afternoon, you get to see the top level of competition.

“When you come to the IFR, the cream will rise to the top. The 15 contestants in each event have earned their way to be there. You’re going to see the top level competition.”

It’s something fans have come to expect over the last 25 years. It’s just as it should be.

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