Bareback rider hopes to add to college and rookie titles at the NFR
Bret Franks had just made his third National Finals Rodeo in four years in December 2000, proving his place as one of the elite saddle bronc riders of the time.
His wife, Darla, was pregnant – very pregnant – with their second son, Cole.
“I was as big as a barn,” she said, noting that she also was with-child in 1997 when Bret competed in Las Vegas for the first time. Both Cole and his older brother, Clint, were February babies, separated by three years and four days.
Both boys have followed in their father’s footsteps in the world of rodeo. At age 20, the baby of the family is already making a name for himself. He’s clinched the 2021 Resistol Bareback Riding Rookie of the Year title and is heading to his first NFR, 12th in the world standings after a phenomenal campaign.
It’s been so good, in fact, that Cole Franks can’t put his finger on one thing that stood out more than the others. It’s been so good that he has a chance to become just the fifth person in ProRodeo history to win a college title and a world championship in the same calendar year, following in the footsteps of Ty Murray, all-around 1989; Matt Austin, bull riding 2005; Taos Muncy, saddle bronc riding 2007; and Haven Meged, tie-down roping 2019.
“Making the finals is really great,” Cole Franks said. “When I got my card this year, I wasn’t focused on it or even looking at the finals this year. I was just looking at the rookie deal and banking on making the finals next year. For it to happen this year is really cool.”
His focus changed sometime over the summer after the College National Finals Rodeo, where he dominated bareback riding and also advanced to the championship round in saddle bronc riding. He left Casper, Wyoming, with both the bareback riding and the all-around national titles. Then he jumped in the rig with bareback riders Tim O’Connell, a three-time world champion, and Jess Pope, who won the average at his first NFR last December.
“When I got in with Tim and Jess, they asked me what my goal was, and I told them my main goal was the rookie,” he said. “They told me to make the main goal the finals, then the rookie will take care of itself.”
They were right. As the only rookie to have qualified for the NFR, Franks has that title in his back pocket heading to Las Vegas to battle for the world championship, set for Dec. 2-11 at the Thomas & Mack Center. He is in an elite field that features 12 NFR veterans, including three men that own nine of the last 10 gold buckles: O’Connell (2016-18), Clayton Biglow (2019) and Kaycee Feild (2011-14, 2020).
Maybe, just maybe, this is what Cole Franks was bred to do. He was born Feb. 14, 2001, in Guymon, Oklahoma. Being the father of two, Bret Franks kept his focus on rodeo but less on competing. He retired in 2004 but stayed around rodeo for another five years as the general manager for a stock contracting firm.
He moved the family south 150 miles to the Texas Panhandle town of Clarendon and eventually became the rodeo coach at Clarendon College. With his son picking up points and several others contributing along the way, the Bulldogs won the men’s team title this past June. It was actually Bret Franks’ third men’s team title as a coach; he’d done so in 1997 and ’98 while coaching at his alma mater, Oklahoma Panhandle State University.
The fact that the Okies became Texans didn’t change much. The terrain in the Panhandles is much the same, and rodeo was always around the corner. From 2009-2015, he was a part-time rodeo judge, marking scores and making sure the rules were applied. He still does it from time to time, but he was always and forever will be seen as a coach.
“From Little League baseball to football and everything else, Dad was always my coach,” Cole Franks said. “I started competing in eighth grade with junior high steer riding. At all the rodeos Dad would judge, they’d have donkey riding. That’s where bareback riding started.
“I’ve team roped a little bit, but the roughstock stuff is all I knew growing up. I never paid attention to the timed events.”
A junior at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri, he still competes in saddle bronc riding at college rodeos. His success in bareback riding, though, has positioned Franks on a launching pad, ready to take off up the charts.
“I’ve gone back and forth a lot about riding broncs, too,” he said. “I would give it a couple more years or at least riding a lot better in broncs before I would really go.”
There’s also something about bareback riding that fits his personality. It’s much like his early days of playing tackle football; he was a little fireball, nearly a foot shorter than the three other captains walking out for the coin flip.
“Bareback riding is just more of a fight,” said Franks, all grown up and 5-foot-7. “I wouldn’t say I’ve always had a fighter’s personality, but I’ve always wished I was in a way. I think that’s what made me stick with it because of the aggressiveness of it. In the bronc riding, you have to be relaxed to a point, but in bareback riding, it’s 100 percent bare down.”
Soft-spoken to a point, Cole Franks knows what he wants to achieve. He is a second-generation NFR qualifier, and that speaks volumes about how he was raised and how he wants to honor his family. But, like any competitive athlete who is always about bettering himself and circumstances, he wants to do even better than Dad.
“It’s cool to think I’m following in Dad’s footsteps, even if it’s in bareback riding and not bronc riding,” he said. “I have always told myself that I had to make it at least three times, tying Dad’s three. But I want to make it to where I have three gold buckles to put with Dad’s three back numbers.”
Those Montana Silversmiths gold buckles are elusive. There are less than a handful of bareback riders over the last decade that have claimed world championships, and everyone understands it’s going to be a battle in Las Vegas.
But Franks is up for the fight. It’s in his nature.