Building a Legacy
Story and Photos by Jennifer Blackburn
On a cool November evening in 2004, collegiate livestock judging teams and coaches from all over the United States made final preparations for the most influential day of their collegiate judging careers—the national championship at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky.
Ryan Rathmann, coaching at Texas A&M University at the time, had to make the decision which five team members from a total of 13 would have the opportunity to represent their university the following day. He stayed up the entire night praying and worrying about which five he would choose to compete.
One member, Dustin Warren, had not performed well in practice during the road trip from College Station, Texas, to Louisville, but from a compelling notion within, Ryan woke Warren at five in the morning the day of the contest, looked him straight in the eyes and asked if it was his day. Ryan said Warren always knew when he was ready, and he never had anyone look at him the way Warren did that morning.
Warren exceeded expectation and the team won. After the banquet, Warren called his mom, overwhelmed with emotion, and told her it was the best day of his life. Ryan, with tears in his eyes, said, “I will never forget that day.”
Ryan’s success is truly measured by the philosophy that teams are remembered by how they finish the year in Louisville. He said his greatest hope for team members is their experience and accomplishments from livestock judging will promote greater success and character development later in life.
Two years later, Ryan made the transition from Aggie to Red Raider, but his goals and objectives have undoubtedly remained the same.
“What I enjoy the most,” he said, “is the development of relationships with members from my teams.”
“I’m still young, so I have accumulated a network of over 70 kids that I have mutual respect and friendship with,” he said. “I would stand behind any of them and hope they would do the same for me.”
Ryan has coached teams for six years now, and each have won the national title—giving him the honor of becoming the most successful collegiate livestock judging coach of all time.
Dr. Scott Schakke, coach at Kansas State University, was tied with Ryan for the most Louisville wins until last fall when Ryan’s team clenched a sixth national title, but in retrospect, no other coach has gone undefeated like Ryan. Not to mention, since his tenure at Tech, he has coached three consecutive national champion meat animal evaluation teams. Yet, even with tremendous success, his peers admire his selflessness.
“I try to conduct myself with more humility and always prioritize the interest of students to a much greater degree than myself,” he said. “I firmly believe there is more support for the judging teams at Tech than any other university in the nation. Students are put first here.”
Ryan developed his own passion for production agriculture at a young age as he grew up on a cow calf operation in Bastrop, Texas.
His dream as a young boy was to attend veterinarian school. However, he said he reevaluated his career plan and turned to mentor Dr. Chris Skaggs, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M, who prompted his interest in teaching at the university level.
Another influential mentor to Ryan is his own father-in-law, Norman Kohls, who Ryan describes as an outstanding animal breeder and a man of vision because he always thinks about the future in his decisions.
Ryan married Norman’s daughter Kayla, coordinator of student and alumni programs in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Tech, after they graduated from Texas A&M.
She said Ryan possessed the characteristics she was looking for in a man, which were similar to those of her own father.
“It’s good to be married to someone like my father because they get along and share common interests, and they are able to bounce ideas off each other, as well.”
Ryan’s greatest support comes from his wife who said early in their relationship, she made that commitment to help him be successful.
“I do a lot of work behind the scenes, whether it is helping with admission applications, scholarships, internships, or simply being a cheerleader,” she said. “The night before a contest, I always ask how he’s feeling and make sure I have positive, uplifting things to say to him. I don’t think people understand how truly stressed out he gets, but his faith really pulls him through in some tough times.”
Ryan and Kayla welcomed their first daughter, Kinlee Ryan Rathmann, in January 2009, which has had a slight impact on Ryan’s manner Kayla said.
“He’s a lot more relaxed now with the birth of Kinlee,” she said smiling.
“I can learn so much from Ryan and the way he handles his students and people in general. He never harbors ill feelings toward people and he’s gained a lot of respect from those around him, which is hard to achieve.”
“What I love about Ryan is his selflessness. He coaches for no self satisfaction or glory,” she said. “He does it for the students and wants to make a difference in their lives.”
Cade Wilson, livestock judging coach at South Plains College and member of the 2004 National Champion team at Texas A&M, said Ryan has made a tremendous impact on his life and still continues to do so today, even as contemporaries.
“As a coach now, I’m still in awe of the passion Ryan holds for livestock judging,” he said. “There are very few that have shared the same passion he does.”
“Even now, it is like Ryan is my coach, and when we work our teams out together, I still try to absorb as much knowledge as I can from him.”
“Ryan’s success is only due to those who chose to follow him, which is a true testament to the legacy he is creating,” he said.
“From a university standpoint, he’s invaluable. It’s not the fact the university is getting exposure from a successful livestock team. The fact is they’re getting a good person too.”
Wilson said Ryan has intelligently surrounded himself with good people at Tech and is trying to show Tech is a place with world class education and an outstanding agriculture setting.
In the future, Ryan said he hopes to make Tech the best possible choice for young adults with a passion for judging and production agriculture.