Through the years, college rodeo has been a stepping stone for contestants moving up into the ranks of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
For others the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) is more than a stepping stone, it’s a chance to get an education. And for a few dedicated competitors, it’s an opportunity to do both.
Such is the case with bull rider Joe Frost and bareback rider Tim O’Connell who both qualified for last year’s Wrangler NFR. Both were in their senior years of college, Both had already been successful college rodeo athletes having competed at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) three times.
Frost earned the NIRA’s bull riding title in Casper, Wyo., in June of 2014. He an O’Connell both spent the summer break going to PRCA rodeos, then headed back to college in the fall. Frost, from Randlett, Utah, went to Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla. O’Connell’s home is in Zwingle, Iowa. He attended Missouri Valley College in Marshall.
College rodeo is made up of 11 regions. Schools in each region host 10 rodeos. Contestants gain points for placing at those rodeos and qualify for the CNFR based on their regional standings. They can qualify as individuals or as part of their respective school’s men’s or women’s teams.
At the time of last year’s CNFR, O’Connell was eighth in the PRCA world standings and Frost was outside of the top 15. When the regular season ended in September, O’Connell was fourth in the world standings, Frost was 11th and they were both headed to their first NFR and they were both still in college.
It wasn’t like they were just juggling classes and their PRCA rodeo schedule, they still had college rodeos to compete at. Then when December and the NFR came around, they each had finals to deal with.
Frost finished the season as the reserve world champion bull rider. O’Connell was successful at the NFR as well, finishing the season in 8th place. A quick holiday break and they were back to school, then the winter building rodeos and spring college rodeos.
Frost graduated in May with a Bachelor’s degree in ag business. O’Connell has one more semester to complete his Bachelor’s in public relations with a minor in business. Along the way, he also earned an Associate degree in fire science and his welding certificate.
“College and college rodeo have always been a priority for me,” Frost said. “Graduating was a goal I set a long time ago. Not achieving that goal wasn’t an option.”
Frost finished third in the bull riding at this year’s CNFR. O’Connell left Casper with the bareback riding title setting a new record for the highest total on four rides at 331 points. The record had been set by eight-time NFR qualifier Ryan Gray in 2004 at 330.
Another college rodeo standout that fans are watching in the PRCA is Clay Elliott who won the title for Panhandle State as a sophomore and will be going back to school there this fall. The Nanton, Alberta, resident is currently 12th in the world standings and has the potential to qualify for his first NFR. Clay has a busy summer schedule and then will return to Oklahoma and hit the books.
“Why wouldn’t I get an education,” Elliott said. “For me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Rodeo will be there after I’m done with school. If I can compete at both levels and keep up with my studies, I will. If I can’t, I’ll have some tough decisions to make.”
It takes hard work and dedication to succeed in any rodeo arena at any level. Succeeding in the classroom along with that adds another element to any rodeo contestant’s schedule. Progressing through the levels of the sport provides an in-arena education that is invaluable. I applaud all of the rodeo athletes that have used college rodeo as a stepping stone.