By: Hannah Smothers, Corynn Wilson, Brittanie Burke and Savannah Williams
Longhorn Rodeo President Janie Johnson has accumulated quite a collection of cowboy boots over the years. Photo By: Kara Mercer
When Janie Johnson got her acceptance letter to The University of Texas at Austin, she was excited about joining one of the best radio-television-film programs in the country — but she wasn’t looking forward to giving up something that’s always been a huge part of her life.
Johnson comes from a Texas rodeo family, and riding horses and barrel racing came hand-in-hand with learning to walk in cowgirl boots. She grew up on a ranch on the eastern rim of Palo Duro Canyon, where there was plenty of room for practicing her sport and keeping her horses. She thought coming to UT, a school without a rodeo team, would mean putting that part of her life on hold for at least four years.
But then she met Alex Lang, another rodeoer and future Longhorn, and Johnson though she might be the perfect candidate to bring a huge missing piece of Texicana back to UT. She would start a rodeo team, but she wasn’t exactly sure how.
“It’s just one of those things where it doesn’t make sense,” Johnson said. “That UT, the most Texas school there is, doesn’t have a rodeo team.”
Real estate: The ultimate game changer
About sixty years ago, UT did have a rodeo team. They called themselves Los Charros, and they functioned as a social club and competitive rodeo group. At the peak of their popularity in the late 1950s, they had about 200 members and hosted the country’s largest collegiate rodeo in a 7,500 seat arena they built themselves on a plot of land just north of campus.
But by 1962, with all of the most notable members of the Charros graduated, the group disappeared. The plot of land that housed their arena is now home to the shops and condominiums that make up the Triangle.
The eventual destruction of the old arena to make room for more restaurants and homes captures one of the biggest problems for the small rodeo group that exists at UT today—finding a place to practice. Johnson and and a handful of other Longhorns wanted badly to see a real team return to the state’s biggest school, no matter how tight space might be in the city.
“People are choosing between A&M and UT for academics, but will always choose A&M because of the rodeo team and the support that they get,” Johnson said. “But UT is so highly academic rated, that if we had a rodeo team, it would [become] the easy option.”
What separates UT’s rodeo team from teams at schools like Texas A&M is how the group is registered with the university. While A&M’s team is registered as a sport club and receives funding and support from the school, the team at UT is only recognized as a glorified social club with the Dean of Students. That means no funding, no facilities and no guarantee that the team will outlive its current members.
This puts a lot of pressure on Johnson and her group. Most of the members are upperclassmen, like Gus Chesnut — a business senior and the group’s calf roper.
“All of our members are about to graduate so we really need to find and recruit younger kids that love the sport as much as we do,” Chesnut said.
But not having facilities is the biggest burden on the group. Without a place to stable their animals or practice for competitions, the members are left commuting hours back and forth between UT, their homes across the state and various cities in Texas where the competitions are held for events that often last no more than a few seconds.
“We’re just asking for support and a facility that we can keep our horses in,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t have to be nice. It just needs to be something that we can use that makes it possible.”
Making a dream a reality
The requirements for registering as a UT club sport include having a group of at least 10 members, prior existence of at least two years, involvement with a national governing body, regular competitions and minimal risk posed to student competitors. As of now, the group has fewer than 10 members. And due to the high risk factors of their sport, the club faces potential liability issues.
But it’s been done before. Having facilities and a university sponsor minimize risk and allow for supervision.
He isn’t an official sponsor, but Steven Jennings, a longtime rodeo enthusiast and adjunct professor for UT’s RTF program, reached out to the group about a year and half ago. He’s worked with Rodeo Austin for roughly 20 years and when he heard what Johnson was doing, he wanted to find a way to help UT’s small rodeo community in any way he could.
According to Jennings, there’s no reason UT shouldn’t have a thriving rodeo team all its own.
“Personally I think that the UT rodeo club ought to be the number one in the country, not one struggling trying to survive,” Jennings said. “I think the University needs to get behind it and I think the community needs to get behind it. It’s part of our culture, it’s part of our heritage.”
The group’s issue is a cyclical problem — they can’t maintain eligibility as a sport club until they have 10 members, but attracting 10 or more members to a group that most students don’t even know exists is nearly impossible. While membership has fluctuated at or around 10-15 students, many graduate before any real bureaucratic action can be taken.
“We have 50,000 students here, that’s bigger than a lot of small towns,” Jennings said. “Chances are that there’s a group of people out of that 50,000 students that would probably love to know about the rodeo club at Texas, but just haven’t heard about it. They may be even rodeoing themselves and not even know that there’s a rodeo club here.”
Maintaining in the meantime
Johnson, Chesnut and the rest of the group compete as often as they can at various rodeos around the state—but almost never together as a team. While they manage to coordinate for small events scattered throughout the rodeo season, traveling together is a logistical nightmare since their animals and gear are spread all over Texas.
But when the announcer calls their name at competition, it’s always followed by, “The University of Texas, Austin,” and the UT logo is embroidered on their pearl-snap riding shirts.
For now, they’ll continue competing and looking for ways to grow their group membership. Johnson and Chesnut both said they hope to compete in professional rodeos after college. Rodeoing is in their blood, and through the UT Rodeo Club, they’ve fought to keep it alive for years.
“It is completely our responsibility and duty as UT alum to support anybody that comes in that wants to help with the rodeo team,” Johnson said. “That’s really going to be the future of the team.”