ALPINE, Texas (Nexstar) – If you head to southwest Texas by Big Bend you’ll find Alpine, home of Sul Ross State University.
It’s there where the sport of college rodeo was established back in 1945.
Doctor Everette Turner was a faculty member teaching range and animal science who organized a club with interested students. They started competing with other colleges unofficially and the first ever college rodeo was at Sul Ross in 1945.
The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, known as the NIRA, was formed in Alpine in 1949 with sanctioned competitions starting in 1950.
Sul Ross won the first three national titles.
“All my life Sul Ross has been winning championships in rodeo. And so the whole community was always proud it had something that brought the community together, it’s something that made a real difference,” said Sul Ross President Pete Gallego who grew up in Alpine.
“It was an inspiration. Being a small town in far West Texas and yet you’re beating schools in a lot of other places that are much bigger that are much more well known.”
The program dominated the early years of the sport and had a resurgence of national titles in the early 80s spearheaded by rodeo legends Cody Lambert and Tuff Hedeman.
But the program hit a snag in the 90s, even with a roofed arena getting built during that decade. They weren’t competing for national titles and their team was significantly smaller.
It wasn’t until head coach C.J. Aragon was hired in 2018 that the program started to return to its past glory.
“You’ve got so much history and tradition here. If you win here, you go in record books. You’re part of NIRA history then,” said Aragon.
After coaching at Odessa College, Aragon was tasked with waking a sleeping giant at Sul Ross and he began with two main objectives.
“One, I needed to start recruiting because we only had seven kids on the team, seven returning kids on the team. And two, start working on building the infrastructure so that we could handle more students on the team.”
“Before C.J. got here we weren’t very suited for a rodeo team,” said team member Brandon Lansford.
“C.J. came in and we’ve been putting in a lot of work together to make it to where we can host a rodeo team that was worth competing with.”
Some of the rodeo athletes followed Aragon from Odessa College to Sul Ross and as they started to win more, the team grew.
One of those students, Tristen Hutchings, is the defending national collegiate bull riding champion, the first such title for a Sul Ross athlete since 1985.
The physical infrastructure has also seen a major improvement. The outdoor arena originally built in the 80s got an upgrade and thanks to alumni, now they have more pens to hold livestock.
The involvement from those who used to compete on the rodeo team have helped the current athletes improve with better facilities.
“A lot of the pipe that did get built out here was from alumni, it was like three days or two days and they come out here and did all of that, it was just awesome,” said Hutchings.
“All of these things are to help us succeed and that’s what has made this program be able to go up and over the top.”
Sul Ross Rodeo has won 25 individual national championships and are tied for the most team championships all time with nine.
As they go for their tenth team title, their numerous rodeo trophies and those red jackets are a reminder to everyone, including opponents, this team has the history and talent to beat anyone.
“We have a national champion on the team and everybody knows when he either backs in the box or crawls down the bucking shoots it’s business and he’s there to take your money,” said team member Zach Hamar.
“We’re showing we got it.”
“When people look at us now, they’re like ‘Hey look there’s a Sul Ross kid, they’re pretty good you should watch. There could be a leader change here,” said team member Timmi Hutchings who’s Tristen’s sister.
“We get to wear the brand and it’s a gift honestly,” said team member Hadley Kibbe.
“It’s something that we all should have a sense of pride to wear whether it’s here in Alpine, whether it’s in the practice pen, or at the rodeos.”
“There’s a lot of other programs that have won national titles, but they don’t have the history and tradition of this program,” said Aragon.
“To represent that history and be put in charge of that history and rebuilding the program that’s a pretty big honor.”
The Sul Ross Rodeo team will compete in the Odessa College Rodeo from Thursday through Saturday at the Ector County Coliseum.