Quick, which athletic squad is UNLV's most decorated? Basketball, with its 1990 national title and multiple All-Americans? The golf team, winner of the 1998 NCAA championship, and two individual national titles? Decent guesses, but, no. The answer: the rodeo team, winner of 15 individual and team national titles in its 24-year history.
One constant during that time is Ric Griffith -- he calls himself "a rodeoer all my life" -- the program's head coach.
Rodeo is not a club sport; it's an official UNLV collegiate sport and is part of the athletics department. But it doesn't receive funding the way other programs do. Sponsorships and donations from local businesses and individuals in the community provide most of the team's budget, including a limited number of scholarships for student-athletes and modest coaching stipends. Griffith and assistant coach Bryce Barnes (who just got a raise to $10,000 a year) both have dayjobs as farriers.
"I've worked my life around the rodeo so that I have the freedom to do the coaching part," said Griffith. He also breeds and trains barrel racing horses on his ranch at Craig Road and Buffalo Drive and runs a headstone-crafting business, Griffith Final Dates, which give him the flexibility to set his schedule around the team.
What does a rodeo coach do? "It's very similar to the other sports," Griffith said. "It goes all year -- coaching, recruiting, talking to kids."
In January, as students come back from winter break, the team kicks into high gear and coaching turns into a full-time job. Then it's months of chasing down annual sponsors, getting awards ordered, and contracts signed. "By April it's very consuming," he said.
When UNLV once again hosted the West Coast Regional Finals Rodeo April 26-27 at the 4,400-seat South Point Arena & Equestrian Center, Griffith and Barnes wore many cowboy hats: coach, host, event organizer, horseshoer, gate changer -- whatever needed to be done.
The two coaches basically lived at the South Point Hotel that weekend. But despite their 20-hour work days, Barnes said, "Once the rodeo actually begins, it feels much easier."
South Point owner Michael Gaughan is a key donor for the program. His hotel's equestrian center features a 250-by-125-foot arena floor with climate-controlled accommodations for 1,200 horses. The regional's final event on Saturday evening brought in nearly 3,200 people.
"Michael Gaughan has been such a huge supporter," Barnes said. "He just said, 'Whatever you need, you just let me know.'"
Practice sessions are held at the Rockin' K Arena in northwest Las Vegas on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The team's 15 student-athletes compete in 10 rodeos each season. The team standings come from the top six men and four women in each competition. The men compete in saddle bronc, bareback and bull riding; tie-down roping; steer wrestling, and team roping. The women compete in barrel racing, breakaway roping, and goat tying.
The South Point regional finals were the last step before the College National Finals Rodeo, which will be held June 15-21 in Casper, Wyo. The Rebels did not qualify for the national title team competition.
"We had a really young team this year," said Griffith, whose team usually ranks in the Top 10 nationally. "That changes the scenario. I call it the high school jitters. (The talent level) was a big eye-opener for the young kids. But they learn a lot."
The coaches will enter next season with big hopes for a more experienced team, which will include junior saddle bronc rider Tyler Baeza, who will compete for a national title next month in Casper.
Barnes is optimistic about the next couple of years. "It's an exciting core group that will be competitive for a long time."
Joining that group will be new recruits, some of whom will come from the junior college ranks. Griffith and Barnes get around 200 applicants each year for those 15 roster spots and watch the video highlight reels to pare down the prospect list.
Since the program lacks resources for recruiting trips, the tournaments are key to attracting top talent to the program. Four junior college teams competed in the West Coast Regional Finals, giving Griffith and Barnes an up-close look at dozens of prospects. UNLV also competes with other four-year schools, including Fresno State and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo for steer wrestlers and barrel racers.
Of course, both prospective and current student-athletes must make the requisite academic progress. "Just because a student goes to a junior college, doesn't mean he or she has aspirations of going to a university," Barnes said. "There are only a certain number who can meet the academic requirements and have the motivation for it."
And Griffith is a stickler on the subject: The cowboys and cowgirls know studies come first; rodeo comes second.
Barnes said about 85-90 percent of UNLV team athletes move on to professional rodeo at some level. "That doesn't mean you'll seem them at next year's National Finals Rodeo," Barnes said. "But we've had some kids come out of UNLV who did."
When the NFR rolls around again in November, Griffith and Barnes will be there to fulfill one of their many roles: fund-raising. "The NFR is big for us," Barnes said. "It gives us a major opportunity to talk to other rodeo people and people in the community."
UNLV's Pro Champions
Professional Bull Riders (PBR); National Finals Rodeo (NFR); Professional Women's Rodeo Association (PWRA); Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR)
- Ross Coleman: 10-time PBR World Finals Qualifier
- Nora Hunt: PWRA World Champion Breakaway Roper (2002), PWRA World Champion Tie-down (2003)
- Cody Jesse: NFR Qualifier (2002, 2003), NFR Average Winner (2003), Reserve World Champion (2003)
- Joe Ketter: NFR Qualifier (2001)
- Justin McBride: PBR World Champion (2005, 2007)
- Colin McTaggart: NFR Qualifier (2007, 2008, 2009)
- Marcus Michaelis: NFR Qualifier (2007)
- Nellie Williams: NFR Qualifier (2010)
- Preston Williams: Team Roping Champion (1997), INFR World Champion Calf Roper (2001, 2004-06, 2009), INFR World Champion All-around (1995, 2005)