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TUFF & PBR: Inside scoop

If you’re looking for the inside story on Tuff Hedeman’s nasty split from the PBR, look no further. Below is an excerpt from a new book, “Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies & Bull Riders: A Year Inside the Professional Bull Riders Tour” that documents how the war started and raged in 2004.

Chapter Thirteen: Tuff Times for the PBR
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Wednesday through Friday, July 7–9, 2004

Back late from a business meeting, Randy Bernard strode into his eighth-floor office, dumped his travel bag on the ground, and settled into the leather chair behind his cherrywood desk. To his left was a spectacular view of Pikes Peak . But he scarcely glanced at the snow-capped mountains. With his tanned face, toothy smile, and full head of brown hair, even at age 37 he looked as much a frat house president as a chief executive officer, let alone the CEO of a company with a budget of $35 million in 2004. He usually wore jeans and cowboy boots but hardly cut the image of a stereotypical cowboy with his Palm Pilot, pocket-sized digital camera, and iPod. He could be as affable as a cruise ship director and as smooth as a marble countertop, but at the moment he seemed distracted as he flipped open his laptop computer while his executive assistant, Andee Lamoreaux , rattled off Bernard’s phone messages. Bernard stared at his computer screen. Online, he clicked onto rodeo Web sites where he knew the message boards would be filled with chatter. He wanted to get the latest take on the news that a week earlier had rocked the PBR and sent his executive assistant scrambling. If anybody could find Bernard, it was Lamoreaux. She punched the numbers on her office phone.

“Hello?”

Got him.

Bernard, on business in London , answered his cell phone. Lamoreaux’s urgent voice indicated there was no time for chitchat. Call Richard Perkins, she said, referring to the PBR’s chief financial officer.

“Why? What’s up?”

“We just got a letter--Tuff resigned.”

Tuff resigned? It was enough to make a cowboy swallow his snuff.

“Oh, damn,” Bernard said.

Less than 7 days into what was supposed to be a leisurely 6-week break between BFTS stops, Hedeman had terminated a contract that called for him to sign autographs at all of the tour’s BFTS events and paid him more than $100,000 a year. His resignation letter, dated June 24 and sent by certified mail, contained a single sentence: “Gentlemen, I hereby tender my resignation as a member of the board of directors of the Professional Bull Riders, Inc., and as president of the Professional Bull Riders, Inc., to take effect immediately.”PETE? WHADDYA THINK?

Bernard left three phone messages for Hedeman. None were returned.

Adding to the confusion, a British filmmaker working on a documentary about the PBR called Bernard to say that just days earlier, her crew had taped an interview with Hedeman during which he had said the PBR was “his life.” Now he’d resigned? She didn’t get it. Neither did Bernard.

All Bernard had to go on was an article in the Empire-Tribune, a newspaper in Stephenville , Texas . “The PBR is big business,” Hedeman was quoted as saying. “I just have some fundamental differences about that. I will always choose what I think is best for the bull riders. Producing in a sport that is profitable is important and it’s hard work. I enjoy doing that; but when it comes to what’s good for business and what’s good for the riders, I put the riders first every time. They are what the fans come to see.”

The insinuation was clear: The riders had become a secondary concern to Bernard and the PBR’s board of directors. But less than 24 hours after the article was published, Ron Pack, Hedeman’s business partner and close friend, disavowed the quote that appeared in the Stephenville paper. Bernard wasn’t convinced, and not long after his conversation with Pack, he got a call from a rodeo newspaper reporter who wanted to know what Bernard thought of Hedeman’s resignation and the quote. The quote? Yes, the quote, replied the writer, reading to Bernard what the writer said Hedeman had sent him--the exact same quote that ran in the Empire-Tribune.

Bernard was upset but had no intention of canceling the meeting he’d arranged with Pack and Hedeman for July 12 at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. There they would discuss Hedeman’s future with the PBR. Bernard would bring Cody Lambert, the PBR’s vice president and a grouchy but funny ex-rider who was as tough as Hedeman. He and Hedeman were once friends. After all, they had grown up together, attended college together, and traveled together on the rodeo circuit. To this day, Lambert would say of Hedeman, “He’s the best rider that ever got on a bull.” But their friendship was over.

Before Bernard took over as the PBR’s CEO in 1995, Pack said, Hedeman and Lambert had formed the political strength behind the tour. But as the years passed, they found themselves on opposite sides of issues, especially when, at Bernard’s urging, the PBR began copromoting its own events. Hedeman was looking out for the original promoters and sponsors; Lambert was looking out for the PBR; and both contended they were looking out for the riders.

At the 1995 World Finals, only hours before Hedeman’s infamous wreck with Bodacious, Lambert ripped off the arm of a chair and flung it across the room at Hedeman. It bounced off a metal locker. Just another PBR board meeting, where the old friends turned nasty. “Tuff and Cody, without a doubt, run the board of directors,” Pack said. “Two captains sailing a ship and a difference of opinions. Somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose.”

By 2004, it was clear Hedeman was headed for defeat.

As the word of Hedeman’s resignation spread among the bull-riding world, fans swamped the PBR’s message board before Bernard ordered it shut down. “There was so much malicious gossip, and the PBR is not going to be a place to start false rumors,” Bernard said. “We’re not going to put the message board back up until fans understand that.”

What Bernard had to understand was this: To many fans, Tuff Hedeman was the PBR

Hanging prominently on a wall in Bernard’s office was a charcoal print of Hedeman riding a bull with the inscription, “To one of my best friends. Thanks for all your help. Best of luck.” But the photo was signed in 1995. The start of their rift took place at the 1996 PBR Finals.

That week boxes of Cinch jeans arrived at the MGM Grand, then site of the PBR World Finals. It was like a shipment of Coca-Cola arriving at the offices of Pepsi. Cinch was a chief rival of Wrangler, one of the PBR’s top sponsors. Hedeman had an endorsement deal with Cinch jeans, and the boxes that arrived at the MGM Grand were addressed to him. When Bernard learned about the surprise delivery and that Hedeman intended to pass out the jeans to the PBR’s riders, he confronted him in front of a few other people.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Tuff? Wrangler is our sponsor, period. You don’t do shit like that.”

The public tongue-lashing enraged Hedeman.

“You and me are going outside,” Hedeman said.

They exited through a nearby door.

He grabbed Bernard by the throat. “I ought to kick your ass.”

Moments later Hedeman dropped his hands and walked away. Hedeman later claimed that his limo driver had inadvertently dropped three or four boxes of Cinch jeans at the arena and that somebody opened the boxes without asking his permission. He also said he had had no intention of passing out the jeans to fellow riders until he got back to the hotel. But his relationship with Bernard only worsened.

In 2002, with Bernard leading a meeting that included the riders and shareholders in Louisville , Kentucky , Hedeman stood up, accused the board members of raking in most of the PBR’s profits, and criticized Bernard and the board for voting against increasing prize money. Bernard explained that in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the economic downturn, he wanted to proceed cautiously. Board members chided Hedeman for his unexpected remarks that led to a tense 6-hour meeting between Hedeman, Lambert, and Murray . After that meeting, Hedeman and Bernard coexisted without further controversy. But hope for permanent rapprochement ended in June 2004 after the PBR’s stop in Nashville , Tennessee .

@EL:Even before Bullnanza- Nashville June 12–13, Hedeman had objected to Bernard’s dropping some original PBR sponsors who couldn’t match the money offered by new sponsors. He also objected to Bernard’s cutting ties with some promoters and demanding others split the gate receipts with the PBR. The rift intensified when Bernard suggested the PBR should get 30 percent of the profits from the Tuff Hedeman Challenge instead of allowing Hedeman to keep 100 percent of the profits. The 70-30 split was the same deal the PBR had with the Ty Murray Invitational and the Bossier City event that Hedeman and Pack copromoted.

Ultimately, Bernard and the board backed away from demanding a split of the profits at Hedeman’s signature event, but animosity festered.

When the rumors about Hedeman’s badmouthing Bernard persisted, Lambert confronted Hedeman at a board meeting. “Do you think Randy should resign?” he asked.

“Yes.”

But Hedeman found himself alone. All seven board members, including Murray and Lambert, expressed support for Bernard. In private, Hedeman continued to gripe about Bernard’s bottom-line driven philosophy--a philosophy that in June 2004 ended the tour’s relationship with one of its earliest partners, Gaylord Entertainment, producer of the Bullnanza bull-riding events. Since Bullnanzas had become part of the PBR tour in ’94, the event had assumed all the risk and reaped all of the profits. Under Bernard, that was about to change.

He presented a new deal: a 50-50 split.

A. G. Meyers, a friend of Hedeman’s who produced the four Bullnanzas in Nashville , Reno , Oklahoma City, and Guthrie, refused the deal, and that ended the PBR’s 11-year relationship with Bullnanza and the Gaylord family.

A few days later, committed to producing the events in 2005 without the PBR, Meyers called the Oklahoma City arena to book his regular dates. No luck. Bernard, anticipating the PBR’s split with Bullnanza, had booked the coveted dates months earlier.

Meyers retaliated by calling a handful of riders, including Justin McBride, trying to secure a commitment from McBride to ride in future Bullnanzas. PBR rules called for a 1-year suspension for any rider who missed a BFTS event without a medical excuse or permission from the PBR. But Meyers’s politicking concerned Bernard enough that during the second week of July, he was on the phone with McBride.

“He’s badmouthing us pretty good, huh?” asked Bernard, smiling as he leaned back in his office chair. “That just pisses me off. Jesus Christ, all we’re trying to do is make it the best deal for the PBR. We’re kicking ass. I can promise you that.”

While riders and fans continued to speculate about Hedeman’s resignation, Bernard had turned his attention toward finding a replacement. Losing one star, he and the PBR board grabbed at another--Murray, one of the PBR founders who had pushed for the hiring of Bernard. Since retiring, Murray had spent most of his time in semiseclusion in Stephenville , Texas , where he ran his 2,000-acre cattle and horse ranch, retired his parents, and built a boat and a guesthouse with his father. He enjoyed the spotlight about as much as he enjoyed a bull’s horn in the ribs.

On the PBR’s top circuit, any rider who skipped a postevent autograph session was fined $500. During his second to last season, Murray blew off so many autograph sessions that his fines exceeded $10,000.

Bernard called Murray and, with help from Lambert, made his pitch. Then he scheduled a telephone conference with the voting board members, including Lambert; Cody Custer, a retired rider and the PBR’s primary back judge; Aaron Semas, a retired rider and an original investor in the PBR; Teague, the multimillionaire from North Carolina ; and active riders J. W. Hart and Michael Gaffney. The men needed less than 30 minutes to make Murray its unanimous selection as the PBR’s next president. Then they called Murray .

“If you need me, I’ll do it,” he said.

The PBR immediately posted a story on its Web site heralding the appointment of Murray as the new president and another unanimous vote adding Adriano Moraes to the board. Hedeman’s resignation was mentioned in the last sentence of the story. Yet the story failed to address concerns about replacing the fan-friendly Hedeman with someone like Murray .

But Bernard did his best, announcing that Murray had forfeited his six-figure salary and donated the money to top riders who signed autographs. Unlike Hedeman, however, Murray agreed to appear at no more than 12 events. On July 9, Bernard gathered his staff in a conference room, and they had to squeeze in. The two-person team when he took over in 1995 had mushroomed to an army of 47, none of whom had ever ridden a bull; they were hired to help run a business, not a rodeo. They were called in to hear Murray address them via speakerphone.

Before he called and began his remarks, someone must have told him about the staff’s volleyball party scheduled for that night. Yes. Good change.

“You better buckle down,” Murray said. “And if anybody drinks beer at the volleyball game, you’re fired.”

The staff cracked up, knowing if Murray had been at the party, he would’ve been pounding beers rather than the volleyball. Then he praised the PBR staff for all it had done and said he wanted the employees to know how much he appreciated them.

“I’m not just trying to blow smoke up your asses,” he said.

“You ever going to leave the ranch?” piped up Sean Gleason, the PBR’s chief operating officer.

“Not if I can help it,” Murray shot back.

Less than 2 weeks after Hedeman stepped down, Bernard gathered his senior staff members and called for a plan that showed how the PBR was going to increase its revenue in 4 years from $35 million to $100 million.

“I thought you said 5 years?” Gleason said.

Bernard grinned. “Well, I’d like to do it in 4.”

He asked each department head to look for ways to cut costs and increase revenue, and he wanted it on paper in 2 weeks. The PBR had 23 corporate sponsors, including the big three--Ford, Wrangler, and Bud Light--and a newcomer in the US Army. But HealthSouth Corporation, which the PBR had picked up while dumping Justin Boot Company as title sponsor of the sports medicine team, was trying to recover from a financial crisis after the government filed suit in 2003, accusing the company and its former CEO of massive accounting fraud. The company delayed payments and would eventually pull out altogether. Now, some riders were carping about the reduced money on the Challenger Tour, which many of the top 45 riders depended on to make ends meet. Fan club membership had dipped under 30,000 from its recent all-time high of 40,000. And the $9.5 million prize money the PBR advertised would be available during the 2004 season was on pace to fall about $800,000 short of that original projection. As a result, Bernard wanted to come up with a presentation to convince the riders, the stockholders, and the board that the PBR would continue to grow with or without Hedeman.

Make no mistake. Bernard remained more than a little interested in what the industry and fans were saying about Hedeman’s resignation. Sitting in his office chair, he turned to his laptop and clicked onto the rodeo sites, breaking into a grin as he pointed at his computer screen.

“Look at this.”

It was a poll that got to the heart of the matter with one question: Will Tuff Hedeman’s resignation hurt the PBR?

Of the 42 respondents, 34 had voted “No,” 3 had voted “Yes,” and 5 had voted “Wait and see.” A half hour later, Bernard rechecked the poll. The results from a small sampling of fans were running about the same. But this time, Bernard moved his cursor in position to cast his own vote. He clicked on choice number 3: “Wait and see.”

The real war had just begun.