Not surprisingly, college rodeo traces its earliest history to Texas. In 1920, college cowboys at Texas A&M University organized the first college rodeo to help raise money to travel to a livestock judging contest in Chicago, according to Sylvia Gann Mahoney, author of the book College Rodeo: From Show to Sport (Texas A&M University Press, 2004).
The rodeo offered bronco busting, goat roping, saddle racing, polo, a greased-pig contest and country ballads from a quartet. While the then-all male school’s rodeo was just for A&M athletes, the organizers invited women rodeo performers, highlighting how cowgirls were involved in the college sport from its earliest days.
“They invited women to compete because they knew they’d bring cowboys to watch,” Mahoney said in a telephone interview. “Women have just always been a part of college rodeo.”
College rodeos spread rapidly in the 1930s, especially at land-grant colleges, Mahoney said. But the first intercollegiate rodeo—in which schools battled each other—was in April 1939 at a dude ranch in Victorville, California, where an entrepreneur brought together 11 college teams.
Even so, some cite 1949 as the year rodeo really became a legitimate college sport with the founding of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) and the adoption of its constitution. Much of the leadership came from cowboy student athletes at Sul Ross State University and a few others, such as Texas A&M’s Charlie Rankin, the organization’s first president.
“Cultural aspects hindered rodeos’ acceptance into college athletic departments,” Mahoney writes. “The word show, a carry-over from the Wild-West Show days, continued in the contestants’ daily references to college rodeos. Recognizing this problem, NIRA leaders and rodeo coaches made an effort to replace rodeo’s vaudeville show image as they promoted rodeo as a college sport in athletic departments.”
In 1950, delegates to the NIRA convention voted to replace the word “show” with “rodeo” in its constitution.
No matter the name, cowboys from Sul Ross, the little-known college in remote Alpine, dominated those early years. The late, legendary rodeo champion Harley May helped lead Sul Ross to the first four national men’s titles, 1949-52. All told, Sul Ross has won nine team titles, seven men’s and two women’s. That is tied for the most with Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
Mahoney, a one-time English professor, was roped into coaching the team at New Mexico Junior College despite having never participated in a rodeo. Now retired, she lives in Vernon with her husband John Mahoney, who coached four national champion rodeo teams—three at Sul Ross and one at Vernon College.