By Alvin Benn
|Don Hines shares his love for horses with his grandson Brodee Asher.
Those who complain about job pressures are unlikely to match Don Hines when it comes to confronting real stress— physical as well as mental.
He experienced both at the same time one night when he was young, energetic and out to prove just how good a bull rider he was.
Unfortunately for Hines, the bull had other ideas and roared toward him with evil intentions.
He had remained atop the 1,500 pound animal for the required eight seconds to qualify for a prize, but it looked for awhile like he might not be around to collect it.
"I was headed toward a plank fence with the bull just behind me," said Hines, who is dean of Troy University’s Sorrell College of Business. "I tried to get my boot on the bottom plank and bolt over the fence, but my foot slipped and I fell to the ground."
||Don Hines, left, stands with Jeff Barron, assistant manager of the Pike Farmers Co-op in Troy.
What happened next has remained frozen in his mind since that traumatic moment 40 years ago.
"The bull hit the fence just above where I was lying on the ground," said Hines, remembering how close he had come to getting gored. "It shook me up pretty bad. I was old enough to realize the risks I was taking."
That incident, along with the traffic death of a rodeo buddy heading home from an event, convinced Hines a college degree was much safer than bull riding.
The students who have benefited from that decision are spread throughout the country today— men and women who came in contact with a man who admits he wasn’t exactly a Rhodes Scholar when he entered college.
"I graduated with a ‘C’ average in high school and about the only thing I won was being named ‘Most Likable’ in my senior class," said Hines, referring to his early classroom days back in Mississippi.
He grew up in Ashland, MS, about 90 minutes from Memphis. It was a dirt-poor county, comparable in many ways to Alabama’s Black Belt region.
An only child, Hines cared more about farming and riding Quarter Horses than obtaining a college degree. He was far from spoiled and became a vital part of the family’s survival network.
His father, who served in an Army division led by Gen. George Patton and was elected to the Benton County Commission after World War II, mixed politics with farming.
His son began riding horses before he could spell the word and, for awhile at least, became more comfortable on them than behind a desk at school.
"My first horse was named Blackie and I loved him," said Hines, during an interview in his office where decorations are a little bit country and a little bit academia. "Blackie taught me how to ride."
Bryant Hines loved everything about farming and rodeo and encouraged his son to pursue both. It wasn’t long before young Don began experimenting with the phase of rodeo he liked best.
His decision to become a bull rider stayed with him until that fateful day in his early 20s when he found himself between a rock and a hard place— a bull and a fence he couldn’t clear.
"Each little community in our part of Mississippi had a rodeo arena," said Hines, now 63. "We’d get together on Saturday nights to determine the best. I picked bull riding because they’re closer to the ground than horses."
As he neared the end of his high school years, Hines began to think about college. His "C" average wouldn’t have earned him a scholarship, but his parents pushed him in a direction they thought he needed to go.
His first bull riding competition occurred when he was 13 and he became one of the best in his part of the state. Soon, his name became known throughout Mississippi.
"The objective of bull riders is to land on your feet," he said. "People used to joke about me being a dismount expert. I took it as a compliment."
When he wasn’t on a bull or in school, Hines was up early in the morning to do his chores around the farm. In addition to his dad being a farmer and a politician, his parents also ran a little country grocery in Benton County.
The family had to be up by 5 a.m. in order to open the store and begin farm work. Hines remembers the pounding on the store’s front door by people who wanted to get something to eat to start their day.
"One of my jobs was to gas up the tractors," he said. "I remember more than one occasion when I needed a flashlight to see what I was doing."
He was a crack shot, too, bagging his share of squirrels, especially during the summer when he spent a lot of his time feeding and riding the family’s horses.
Hines got his bachelor’s degree in agriculture economics at Mississippi State University and it took him 5 ½ years to do it. That’s because he was always riding bulls around the Southeast on weekends.
"The only thing on my mind back then was to get to the next town, the next rodeo," he said. "I tried not to tell my professors where I was during those days. Most questioned my intelligence anyway so I didn’t need to add to their opinions."
Hines had some good job offers when he got his bachelor’s degree, but he also set his sights on graduate school. He had taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, and knew his future was in education, not rodeo.
When Hines told one of his professors he was thinking about working toward a master’s degree "he had to pick himself up off the floor."
"He said ‘Don, occasionally I take a chance on someone and I guess it’ll be you this time,’" Hines chuckled, recalling the backhanded compliment. "I guess he saw the potential in me."
His professor still had reservations, however, and had Hines admitted on a probationary basis. That meant he had to have at least a "B" average in his first semester. He did it with ease and his interest in economics took flight.
As it turned out, grad school became easier than his undergraduate days. Then, he was asked to teach an economics class at Mississippi State.
"I had great reluctance and anxiety over that, but it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life," Hines said. "It led me to switch from ag economics to the wider world of economics and I’ve never regretted it."
The next logical step after graduate school was obtaining a doctorate and Hines left for Kansas State University. He earned his Ph.D. in 1973 and came back to Alabama where he began his education career as an assistant professor of economics at what was then Troy State University.
When he wasn’t holding down important positions at Troy, Hines served four years as president of the University of West Alabama as well as a stint as assistant director and chief of planning and economic development for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.
To say he’s become a fixture at Troy University, where he’s left and returned on several occasions, would be an understatement.
"Dr. Don Hines has truly mastered the art of walking with kings while retaining the common touch," said Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins. "How many former university presidents are as equally at home in the boardroom and in the rodeo arena? I’m proud to call ‘Cowboy Hines’ our Dean."
Hines, who co-founded Horseshoe H. Consulting with his wife, Candace, also serves as a commissioner on the Alabama Water Resource Board and is a former chairman of the board of directors of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterways Development Council.
He’s understandably proud of his many accomplishments, but one that stands out from all the others is creation of two university rodeo teams in Alabama.
The first one was in 1994 at the University of West Alabama. He began from scratch, but quickly rounded up some of the most promising ropers and riders in Alabama.
Troy University’s rodeo team was launched in 2002 and has done well on the college circuit which came as no surprise to Hines.
"I knew if we ever began one at Troy we’d be competitive and we’ve done just that," said Hines. "We’ve raised $30,000 in scholarship money and have received solid support from people who are supporting the program."
Hines relies on Pike Farmers Co-op in Troy to provide him with the feed he needs for his horses, as well as the mounts for members of the school’s rodeo team.
"The Co-op means a lot to me personally and our team uses it exclusively," said Hines, who has become friends with Manager Wayne Ward, Assistant Manager Jeff Barron and others who work there. "We’re fortunate to have it here to help us."
After four decades in the classroom, boardroom and rodeo arenas around the South, Hines can now relax. He said he doesn’t plan to move again and is having a ball spoiling grandson Brodee Asher.
"I’ve become more jealous of my time now," he said. "I made it this long without having to change any diapers. I can do that now."
Brodee is 17 months old, but already has the same love of horses his granddad developed as a boy back in Mississippi.
"He’s been on a horse since he was 10 months old," said Hines, who indicated he sees great cowboy potential in his first grandchild.
Changing diapers can be a little hazardous, especially when baby boys are involved, but they can hardly compare to his days in rodeo arenas where he’d climb aboard a bull that would much rather be in a pasture.
"The adrenaline rush I’d get just before the chute opened is something I can’t adequately describe," he said. "I guess I’ve been thrown off at least 300 bulls and broke just about every bone in my body."
Grading test papers, becoming a university president and meeting with movers and shakers in Alabama’s business community is a lot safer— even if a little bull might be thrown during those meetings he attends.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.