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Rope Courses

With cash prizes on the line, college rodeo is unlike any other sport on campus

Ah, those golden fall Saturdays on campus, abuzz with the anticipation of a major college sporting event. There are big crowds and bright lights and a sensory smorgasbord: announcers chattering, scholarship athletes prancing, coaches prowling, spectators cheering and parents praying no one gets hurt.

When it’s all over, the roar fades, the fans head for the exits and, of course, the winners collect their payments.

Whoa! Hold your horses!

College athletes receiving payoffs? If this were big-time college football, there’d be a scandal, possibly penalties levied by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and banishment of players from a sport reserved exclusively for amateur student-athletes.

But this is college rodeo, the only sport on campus in which the athletes openly compete for money. In a typical college rodeo, the top finishers in each of nine events win $400 to $1,000 or more, depending on the number of competitors and the event.

The money is just one of the many quirks that make college rodeo unlike any other sport.

The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA)—the NCAA of college rodeo—considers cash prizes an integral part of the competition. This dates to the beginning of rodeos, which developed in the western United States in the late 1800s when cowboys bet against each other in roping and riding contests, said Roger Walters, the NIRA commissioner and former rodeo coach at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Rodeo has remained a “jackpot” sport, meaning contestants pay entry fees, and the winners split the pot. “It’s a tradition. It’s the way it evolved,” Walters said.

Sure, there are similarities with other college sports: Rodeo athletes are recruited out of high school, earn scholarships, have four years of eligibility (which they must complete within six years) and must maintain academic standards.

Even so, it’s clear that college rodeo is a different animal.

Unlike NCAA-sanctioned sports, the NIRA also allows college rodeo athletes to compete in pro rodeos at the same time as college events. This rule has helped colleges attract the sport’s biggest stars, many of whom have won both the college and world titles. Perhaps most famous is cowboy king Ty Murray, whom TV viewers watched last year as a contestant on the popular TV show, “Dancing with the Stars.”

In 1989, Murray won the bull riding, saddle bronc and all-around events at the College National Finals Rodeo to lead little Odessa College to the national title. Later that same year, he won the all-around title on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association tour, the first of a record seven All-Around World Championship buckles he earned before retiring with $3 million in career winnings.

“The College National Finals Rodeo is as good as a lot of pro rodeos you see,” said Darrell Barron, the 1975 college steer wrestling champion at the University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University-Pueblo). Barron, who lives in Paradise, spent a career marketing college rodeos for the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company and helping run college and pro rodeos.

Men’s and women’s college teams travel together to compete in the same rodeos, typically five in the fall and five in the spring, making college rodeo a virtual year-round sport. There are nine events, and men compete in six: saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, and calf and team roping. Women compete in four: barrel racing, breakaway roping, goat tying and team roping. A cowboy and a cowgirl can pair up to form a two-person roping team.

The best athletes and top-ranked teams are invited to the finals, held in Casper, Wyoming, each June. Two-year colleges compete head-to-head with four-year universities for the same titles—another thing that makes rodeo unlike other college sports, Walters said.  

A Western sport

The sport’s popularity is surging, with about 3,500 college rodeo athletes competing last school year—the most since 1999, he said. More than 120 colleges now have rodeo teams, some as far east as Michigan and Georgia.

Still, rodeo remains largely a Western sport. Texas has more college rodeo teams than any other state and dominates two of the largest and most powerful conferences: the Southern Region and the Southwest Region.

One of the most successful rodeo programs these days is found in Stephenville, home of Tarleton State University. This past year, Tarleton had a combined 104 athletes on its men’s and women’s teams—more than any other school and five times more than regional rival Sul Ross State University in Alpine, among the sport’s powerhouses in its early years.

Tarleton’s deep and talented group won the most recent men’s and women’s Southwest Region titles.

Tarleton Coach Mark Eakin succeeds in recruiting top athletes, some of whom have impressive rodeo pedigrees. These include twin sisters Cassie and Kylie Ward, among the region’s top barrel racers, ropers and goat tyers. They grew up on a ranch in Addington, Oklahoma, where their parents and grandparents raise and train horses, including horses specially bred to fly through an arena’s cloverleaf-shaped barrel course.

The twins’ mother, Renee, was a champion barrel racer, as was their grandmother, Florence Youree, who won the Girls Rodeo Association (now the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association) All-Around title in 1966. Moreover, their older sister, Janae, earned more than $100,000 in 2003 on her way to the World Rodeo Finals title. A few years later, she graduated from Oklahoma State University with a marketing degree.

Since rodeo doesn’t get the same support enjoyed by big-time sports like football and basketball, athletes have to raise most of the money for expenses and their own supplies—everything from boots and saddles to trailers and trucks to haul their horses.

Athletes making their school’s official 10-member competition team each week may receive school money—typically $100—to pay entry fees and travel costs, but it usually doesn’t cover expenses.

“I probably go through a rope a week, and they’re $40,” said Russell Garlick, a team roper and animal science major at Sul Ross. To help pay bills, he and his roping partner, English major Victor Iglesias, shoe horses, perform chores for ranchers and compete in small “jackpot” rodeos. They also must care for their own horses, attend practices and try to find time to study. “I work constantly,” said Garlick, who was practically raised in a roping pen in his hometown of Balmorhea. “But I love it. It’s the only way I’ve known.”

A job for some

Winning those jackpots is all-important for college athletes who consider rodeoing a job while they go to school. Tarleton State’s Eakin said, “Some rodeos are seven hours away. They are easily spending $400 a weekend for feed, fees and gas. Unlike other sports, the kids are paying their own way even though they are wearing your [school] vest and they are competing for the school.”

To get to and from rodeos, the Ward twins drive a heavy-duty pickup and pull a $70,000 trailer, equipped with living quarters for them and space for their five competition horses. Why five horses? Each sister has her own specially trained horse for the barrel-racing and goat-tying competitions, and they share a roping horse. Who paid for all the stuff? “Mom and Dad,” their grandmother said with a laugh. Cassie and Kylie have each turned pro, and they use their winnings to pitch in. They compete in pro and amateur rodeos, plus train horses on the side. The pair often place in several rodeo events over a weekend and can pull in $2,000 to $3,000.

“We better win some money, or else we can’t afford continuing to go,” Cassie said. “They’ve learned to try to make their own living,” said their proud grandmother.

Jamon Turner, the top bull rider for Sul Ross, said he relies on rodeo winnings to pay his rent and other living expenses. “This is more than a hobby,” said Turner, one of a few African-American college cowboys. “This is work.”

From January to April this year, Turner estimated he entered more than 40 competitions—including five college rodeos. He and his traveling buddies frequently drive hundreds of miles over a weekend to get in multiple rodeos. They take turns driving, and Turner, who is majoring in kinesiology and minoring in conservation biology, studies when riding shotgun—or at places like college libraries and McDonald’s restaurants with free wireless Internet service.

After graduation, Turner wants to try bull riding full-time. If that doesn’t work out, “I want to go rodeo and would love to put on clinics and work with contractors learning the bucking trade,” he said.

Charles Boisseau is Texas Co-op Power’s associate editor. Reach him at
[email protected].