Bareback riding at the 2011 UT Martin Spring College Rodeo. Photo by Christie Ricketts

Ropes and Reins

By Bud Grimes

Fans fill the arena to see it. Students attend UT Martin just to be a team member. “And they call the thing rodeo,” as Garth Brooks sings in his hit song about the sport that enjoys a long tradition at the University of Tennessee at Martin. The only college rodeo team in Tennessee has continued to grow in popularity and success since its start in fall 1968.

The team includes both male and female performers as it competes each fall and spring in the Ozark Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. John Luthi, team coach since 1997, has guided the team to the College National Finals Rodeo each year since his arrival, with his 2008 men’s team earning the program’s highest finish ever at third in the nation.

The men’s team has produced four national champions, and both the men and women have earned multiple Ozark Region titles since the program began. Unlike NCAA-governed sports, college rodeo participants can earn prize money for top performances.

National champion Jeff Askey. Photo by Trevor Ruszkowski.As interest grows in fielding competitive college rodeo teams, so has competition for rodeo athletes. “If we don’t have the scholarship money to give them, there’s likely going to be another school that will,” Luthi says.

On average, as many as 15 team members are awarded partial rodeo scholarships annually while the rest pay the full cost to attend UT Martin, including out-of-state team members who pay higher tuition. Increased fundraising helps with rising scholarship costs, as has the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship Program. But in-state talent only can’t fill a roster with the skill level needed to maintain a nationally ranked team. This is where reputation hopefully makes a difference in recruiting.

Chelsie McDade of Selinsgrove, Pa., transferred to UT Martin from Northeast Oklahoma Community College. She has friends who came to UT Martin, including Jeff Askey, who won the 2010 national bull-riding championship. “I really came here because of Coach Luthi,” she says. “He’s such a great coach and has helped me tremendously.”

A senior accounting major, McDade won the 2011 Ozark Region All-Around title, was reserve in the breakaway roping and earned a spot in the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) in June in Casper, Wyo. “It’s amazing,” she says of the CNFR experience. “It’s just phenomenal to be a part of and to watch.”

The team’s marquee event is each April when the Spring College Rodeo welcomes top college rodeo teams to the university’s Ned McWherter Agricultural Complex. Luthi places the UT Martin spring rodeo as one of the best college rodeo experiences in the country. “It’s not far off being the same kind of atmosphere you’d have in the college national finals, so it’s a neat experience for the athletes,” he says. Each of the three nightly performances provides nonstop action and entertainment.

Events are timed and judged by NIRA-approved officials, with individual and team winners (men’s and women’s) determined at the rodeo’s conclusion. It’s serious competition that brings in fans by the thousands year after year.

Success has its rewards, and a reminder occasionally surfaces of UT Martin’s college rodeo status. Luthi received a letter in the fall from a prospective team member who lives in Nebraska, so he called and talked to both the mother and son. He asked how they found out about UT Martin, and they said that, upon searching the Internet for America’s top college rodeo programs, they found a site that listed UT Martin among the top 15.