Handing over the reins
Second generation keeps rodeo tradition strong
Story by Merritt Melancon
Photos by Richard Hamm
For the last 39 years, local lawyers, teachers, bankers and electricians have pulled on their best boots and Wranglers to watch three days of roping and riding at the Great Southland Stampede Rodeo.
High-tempo stadium music blares as families and groups of students stream in and find their seats on metal bleachers in the 1,800-seat South Milledge Avenue livestock arena, where the show has been held for the past three years.
By the time the show starts, everyone is ready for action.
“Whether you're 6, 36, 66 or 96, you're going to have a good time here tonight,” booms Roger Mooney, a professional rodeo announcer who has called the rodeo's action from horseback for the past 20 years.
The applause and cheers from the crowd on that opening night are confirmation that a small group of student volunteers has done it again, like they've done each year since 1974.
|Above: Cleve Jackson, right, the 2013 rodeo chairman, gets some pointers from his dad, Charles, who helped organize the event in 1975 and 1976.|
The rodeo is a success.
“You know that all of those people who organized the rodeo back then are watching; you want to make sure it's a good show,” said Cleve Jackson, a senior studying agribusiness and animal science and the 2013 rodeo chairman.
That first group of UGA Block and Bridle Club members, who built the rodeo from the ground up in the 1970s, laid the foundation for each year that has come after it.
Now that the rodeo is closing in on 40 years, that original team of students and their cohorts have children at UGA, and many of them are following in their parents' footsteps — pulling out all the stops to make sure that one of the largest rodeos east of the Mississippi River continues for generations to come.
“It was something that we hoped would carry on, but when you're in a club for one or two years, you just don't have control over its destiny,” said Charles Jackson (BS – Animal Science, ‘76), Cleve’s father and a 1975 and 1976 rodeo organizer.
“We expected that it would continue past us, but for it to have been going on this long is something special.”
The first rodeo was the brainchild of a group of determined UGA Livestock Judging Team students who wanted to put on a rodeo to raise money to travel to livestock judging events.
That was 1972, and the team members envisioned the rodeo as a competition for cowboys, pure and simple, said Jack Spruill (BSA – Animal Science, ’72), who helped organize the rodeo between 1972 and 1974. They didn't know if the public would even be interested in a rodeo in Athens, he said.
They put up their possessions — a few trucks and washing machines — as collateral, so that the stock contractor and other vendors would allow them to order animals and services on credit.
“We did all have to sign a note to get the money, and we did put up our belongings,” Spruill said. “But if they knew how little possessions we had, they probably wouldn't have taken it.”
The term “DIY” hadn't been invented back then, but the first rodeo definitely qualified. Club members hauled hundreds of tons of arena sand and hay — by themselves — from the animal sciences farm out on South Milledge to Stegeman Coliseum. They even operated the coliseum's spotlights during the rodeo.
“I don't think we had any idea of it being the kind of rodeo it became,” Spruill said. “We just suddenly looked up and the stands were full.”
Two years later, in 1974, what started as a simple cowboy competition became the Great Southland Stampede Rodeo, complete with all the pomp and showmanship that have since become synonymous with what was — until recently — the only student-run, Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned rodeo in the country.
|Participants prepare for the 2013 Great Southland Stampede Rodeo sponsored by the UGA Block and Bridle Club. The rodeo has attracted sell-out crowds at its South Milledge Avenut location for the past three years.|
A wild ride
After a few years, the rodeo started receiving statewide notoriety. Thousands of people streamed into Athens each April to catch the show.
One of the kids in the stands back then was Mooney. Today, he's a professional rodeo announcer by trade and rodeo fanatic by choice who travels across the country announcing large multi-million-dollar rodeos. Despite his full schedule of rodeo gigs, Mooney always makes time to announce the Great Southland Stampede because it's where he fell in love with the sport and later met his wife, Ashley.
|Bronco riding at the rodeo.|
Growing up in Ellijay, Ga., he and his friends started making the trip to Athens for the rodeo with their middle school FFA chapter. It was exciting — cowboys, lights, fast horses, loud music and a big crowd.
“They brought country music acts all weekend,” Mooney said. “Every night they had different entertainers. It was great. One night they had the Oak Ridge Boys, and then Alabama one night, and then you had somebody else the next night, and then you'd have Moe Bandy, Joe Stampley, Jerry Clower.
“That was in the 1980s, so those guys were very popular,” he added with a hint of nostalgia.
Nostalgia, because that's not quite what the rodeo looks like anymore.
Since the late 1980s, the rodeo has been through some ups and downs. The rodeo lost some of its steam after the country music acts were scrapped, but it took its biggest hit after being moved from Stegeman Coliseum in 2003.
The rodeo had started in the coliseum, and being there was part of its
brand — part of why people came, said Jake Willcox (BSA – Agribusiness, ’09), who was rodeo chairman in 2008.
“They had such a good turnout at the coliseum that it was almost like a football game,” he said. “Something that you just looked forward to doing every spring.”
Despite not having a venue, the 2004 rodeo organizers refused to give up on the show. That year, they moved the event to Oconee Heritage Park in south Oconee County, about 19 miles south of Athens.
Even though the rodeo went on, turnout dropped steeply.
Willcox, who worked on the rodeo when it was at Heritage Park, said the whole club knew that they would have to move it back to Athens for the event to survive.
“We had a hard time getting the numbers,” he said. “We knew we wouldn’t have a chance to get back to the coliseum, but we always wanted to bring it back to Athens.”
However, getting back to campus was no small undertaking. After that first year of not being at Stegeman, the club was broke, and it felt like they were starting from scratch, Willcox said.
“We took a $65,000 gamble to move it back to the university (to the Animal and Dairy Science Arena on South Milledge Avenue), not knowing whether it would work or not, and it did,” he said. “And it’s gotten better and better … But in the beginning, just something as simple as figuring out if we had enough toilet seats for that many people was just completely overwhelming.”
|The Great Southland Stampede has a reputation for providing a weekend of family fun and a connection to agriculture's heritage. Dennis Morris, right, walks the behind-the-scenes rodeo grounds with Cole Brooks.|
Back in the saddle
The student organizers must have gotten the details, even down to toilet capacity, right because over the past three years, the rodeo has attracted sell-out crowds each night. The students have also developed some marketing muscle, reaching out to UGA sororities and fraternities to organize group attendance, and organizing theme nights like “Tough Enough to Wear Pink,” which benefits breast cancer awareness and treatment, and the “Tough Enough to Serve” armed services appreciation night.
“We want to restore it back to its former glory and maintain it as one the biggest events on South Campus and one of the main events on campus,” Cleve Jackson said.
One of the things that students have done to turn the rodeo around in recent years was to switch rodeo-sanctioning bodies. Moving to the less well-known International Professional Rodeo Association in 2012 saved the club thousands of dollars in overhead and made the rodeo profitable, said Anna Moses (BSA – Animal Science, ’12), chairman of the 2012 rodeo committee.
The change may have lost them the clout of being the only student-run PRCA rodeo in the country, but it's ultimately made the rodeo more lively and better financially, Moses said.
“We're not as big as we were back then, but just the fact that we kept it going, and we rebuilt it when it was falling apart, that is something that — yeah — I'm proud of,” said Moses, who helped to start a company that organizes small rodeos.
Making the change has also made it possible to put that money into scholarship funds and outreach for the Block and Bridle Club, including taking petting zoos to local elementary schools and inviting more elementary school students to see the show for free.
Keeping with a long tradition that started in the 1970s, the club makes a special effort to reach out to elementary school kids in the Athens area. Each year they do a special school show the morning of the first day.
|Abby Kate Jackson, 7 (left) and her sister Christa, 5, meet a pygmy goat at the rodeo's petting zoo.|
To say the kids — many of whom have never seen a live horse or bull — are
wowed wouldn't be accurate; they are blown away. The rodeo crew cranks up the sound system as the students file in, stomping and clapping in time with the music.
Then Mooney and the cowboys come out — real cowboys. The kids go wild.
“The Athens community has supported us for 40 years,” Cleve Jackson said. “We want to be able to give something back, and this gives the kids a chance to do something exciting, something that they may not otherwise be able to do.”
Community and alumni support have been key to the rodeo's revival over the past few years, and they've come to feel like they are part of the rodeo's family
“This is one of those rodeos that's very intimate,” Mooney said. “You're up close; you're very personal.”
Once you've attended just one time, it becomes your official “hometown rodeo,” like it did for Mooney.
People won't let that kind of tradition go easily. While it's had a few ups and downs over the years, the Great Southland Stampede has become the little rodeo that picks itself up, dusts itself off and comes back better than ever.
“Hopefully 40 years later on down the line, I'll be able to take my own grandchildren here to see the rodeo, and maybe one of my sons will have worked it,” said Cleve Jackson.