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The UA hosted the nation's first intercollegiate rodeo in 1939. Members of the student Rodeo Club are now gearing up for the UA rodeo's 75th anniversary.
A lot has changed about the college experience in the past 75 years. Today's students are digitally connected in ways one never could have imagined back then. College majors exist now that might have sounded like science fiction decades ago.
But even with years of change, there are certain college traditions that stand the test of time. Rodeo at the University of Arizona is one of them.
It was 1939 when the UA hosted the nation's first intercollegiate rodeo. Nearly 75 years later, the tradition is still very much alive, with members of the UA Rodeo Club gearing up for the rodeo's 75th anniversary in March.
"Rodeo is all about preserving Western heritage, and the West was founded on the cattle industry and farming," said club president Ben Saylor, a UA junior majoring in animal sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "Being a part of this club, I'm doing something to preserve the history of our country and showing my appreciation for it."
Saylor, one of about 30 students in the club, was drawn to the UA because of its academic reputation and also because it provided an outlet to continue the hobby he started in seventh grade.
"One of the biggest things for me is I get to be involved in one of the nation's best academic institutions and still pursue the sport I love," he said.
On Friday and Saturday, Saylor and his teammates will compete in Tucumcari, N.M., in the final of three National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association competitions on their schedule this fall. In the spring, they'll head to seven more competitions, including the UA's 75th anniversary rodeo on March 22 at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds. The club plans to also hold an alumni rodeo in March, inviting back past Wildcat cowboys and cowgirls.
The UA is one of 600 members of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. The University competes in the Grand Canyon Region, against schools in Arizona and in New Mexico.
Men's events include bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, team roping, tie-down roping and steer wrestling. Women compete in barrel racing, team roping, goat tying and breakaway roping.
A key player in the UA's longstanding rodeo tradition is John Marchello, professor of animal sciences, who has served as the club's adviser and coach since 1967.
Marchello – who teaches food safety and introductory animal sciences classes – grew up in Red Lodge, Mont., where his father ran a butcher shop and feed store. He was exposed to rodeo from a very young age and developed a fondness for it. He began participating in rodeo himself when he moved to Arizona years later.
For several years, he raised livestock on his ranch in Marana, northwest of Tucson, and supplied steer and calves for many local rodeos. He also cheered on his two sons in the rodeo arena, and served for some time as the performance chairman for the Fiesta de los Vaqueros Tucson Rodeo.
Marchello said overseeing the Rodeo Club has been one of the highlights of his tenure at he UA, where he's seen riders through too many victories and defeats – both inside and outside the arena – to count.
"It's been real rewarding to me to work with these youngsters with regard to rodeo," Marchello said. "And of course the big reward I see is that a lot of them go out, get degrees and become very influential in the world, and do well financially and so on."
In addition to providing students with an extracurricular opportunity, the club also maintains a scholarship endowment to support its members academically. More than $10,000 in scholarships have been awarded, Marchello said.
Competing members in the UA Rodeo Club must have their own horse and have experience riding. It's not for beginners, Marchello stresses.
In fact, many of the club's members, like past Rodeo Club President Carollann Scott, say they "rode before they walked."
The daughter of two competitive riders, Scott started competing in rodeos at age 4.
"It's a family sport, and it's the ultimate camaraderie," said Scott, a senior majoring in journalism.
Students in the club practice daily at an arena at the UA's West Campus Agricultural Center. Two acres were donated to the club by the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2009, Marchello and former rodeo club members raised $32,000 to build the arena and 16 horse pens for club members to keep their horses.
The evening practices are a time to prepare for competition and also to unplug from the modern world and "play in the dirt," Scott said.
"We offer the chance to be around the Western lifestyle, and it's really unique."