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Southern Arkansas University’s athletic teams, the Muleriders, compete in many sports, but no one comes closer to the original muleriders than SAU’s rodeo team. Southern Arkansas University began as a rural agricultural school in Magnolia in 1909, and it was elevated to a junior college in 1923. In 1912, the school earned the moniker of Muleriders after members of the football team rode mules to football practices and games. The school, known in the state as Magnolia A&M, kept its junior college status until 1950, when it became a four-year college named Southern State College. The school underwent another name change in 1976 to become Southern Arkansas University, with a large student body of 5,000, including two satellite campuses in El Dorado and Camden.
Rodeo was popular in the area, and though SAU had sports for male and female athletes, rodeo was not a school-sponsored program, although it did feature a team associated with the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) since 1972. Team participation lagged, though, and by 1980 the team had died out. That changed with a student-led effort that year as several agricultural students decided to restart the rodeo team. Rusty Hayes was one of those students on the SAU campus. Hayes was in the middle of earning his Bachelor of Business Administration. He and the other students found a school sponsor for the sport and then organized and held a fundraiser to rebuild a barn on campus and have money to compete in the Ozark Division of the NIRA. The school also chipped in “scholarships” that year which were used to cover expenses for team travel to weekend rodeos.
The rodeo team had immediate success, and its existence became a draw to young students who wanted to continue competing in rodeo events and get a college education. In the 1980s, the SAU rodeo team won the Ozark Region champion title 10 years in a row, from 1981 to 1990. They also had their first national champions in 1986 when the women’s team captured the team title. In addition, three women won the National All-Around Cowgirl title: Nancy Rae in 1984, Sherry Lynn Rosser in 1987, and Cathy Dennis in 1989. Rusty Hayes finished competing in 1983 and graduated with a master’s in Agricultural Business and Management. For the next two decades, he worked in the area managing farms and ranching. In the meantime, the rodeo Muleriders continued to compete and grow as a team. Hayes even hired some of the rodeo students to work as ranch hands.
In 2005, SAU started to put more money and effort into growing the rodeo program. At the same time, Hayes realized it was time to step outside of managing farms and find another avenue for work. The school was searching for a new rodeo coach, and Rusty Hayes was a natural fit for the job. Twenty-two years after leaving campus, he returned to SAU and stepped into a program ready to excel in the 21st century. Part of that excellence included the need to build a rodeo arena on campus to attract better rodeo athletes. The arena was included in SAU’s Blue and Gold Vision Master Plan as the school planned for over $100 million in new construction and renovations to modernize the campus and reach more students.
In 2010, local Magnolia residents Therral and Jan Story donated $2 million toward the new arena, the largest individual donor gift in the university’s history. Therral Story gave this account for the couple’s motivation for the financial gift: “It’s hard to have a rodeo without an arena. We thought it would be a good idea for the community and the growth of the University.”
As plans moved forward for building the arena, Hayes continued to guide the team. In 2009, the men’s team had its first national champion when Cody Prescott won the national title for calf roping.
In November 2011, the team faced a setback when five horses, a horse trailer and equipment valued at over $250,000 were stolen from the SAU barn. Hayes helped search for the stolen horses, as he, a McCurtain County sheriff, and an SAU rodeo team member investigated some clearcut land in McCurtain County following the discovery of abandoned horse tack nearby. Hayes and his student, Angela Mills, took two horses with them, then separated the horses from each other, knowing the two animals would communicate through neighing. Once the horses began to neigh, they heard other horses joining in, followed the sound, and discovered four of the five missing horses tied up, abandoned and starving. The fifth horse was eventually found dead. The criminal case hit the team especially hard because one of the SAU rodeo team members was involved in the theft. Eventually, four people were sentenced for the crime.
Photo: Coach Rusty Hayes (center) with the 2021-2022 Team Roping Ozark Region champions Logan Graham and Latham Dickson.
Despite this traumatic incident, the team bounced back. Nearly three years to the day of the crime, Story Arena opened with the Muleriders’ own SAU Intercollegiate Rodeo. The 78,000-foot arena features a rodeo-style dirt floor, seating for 1,400, concessions, a reception room, and more. Coach Hayes says the arena helped tremendously in recruiting athletes from across the country to SAU. “If not the best, we’re not far from it,” he says of the arena, stables and practice facilities at SAU. “We’re well-funded from the school and the community. We do raise a lot of money as well.”
The focus on new facilities also allowed the team to grow from around 14 riders when Hayes joined the program to its current size of 40 athletes. Hayes recruits from all over and has had athletes from over 30 states choose to become Muleriders since he started coaching the program. Hayes awards rodeo scholarships, but he also says he likes to recruit scholar-athletes to be able to stretch out the rodeo scholarships to as many athletes as possible. “Interest is high this year,” Hayes says. “We have to look at what we need.” With a full team of 40 athletes, not every event will need to be filled next year. Hayes will decide where the gaps in the team are and offer scholarships accordingly.
Life on the rodeo team includes practice and caring for the athletes’ horses. The riders bring animals with them, and they stay at the SAU stables. The horses are their partners for the events and play a central role in a rider’s success. The team competes in 10 rodeos a year, generally five in the fall and five in the spring. They accumulate points as a team, and as a team they can win the Ozark Division, but they can also qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo held every June in Casper, Wyoming. Individual riders can also qualify for nationals in their events.
This year, SAU is already making its presence known in several events, although it’s still fairly early in the season. The men’s team is currently ranked sixth in the 11-team Ozark Division, and the women’s team is sitting pretty at third. Individually, Georgia Mae Brumley is top of the rankings at breakaway roping, which Hayes calls the fastest event in rodeo. The rider bursts from the gate and ropes a calf around the head. The rope breaks once the calf is far enough from the horse and is not injured. It takes less than three seconds for college ropers to finish.
Team roping is also one of SAU’s strong events this year on the men’s side. Clay Hayden Keith and Graham Logan are third and fourth in the top 10 for team roping headers. In team roping heelers, four men are within the top 10 with Cash Davis in the top spot for SAU at third. In this team event, the men work in pairs with the header roping the calf first around the head and the heeler following to lasso the calf’s back feet.
Other events where the Muleriders are competing in the top 10 are barrel racing and goat tying. Goat tying is a women’s timed event where a competitor rides from the gate, dismounts and ties three legs of a goat. In college rodeo, you’ll also see events in bareback riding, saddle bronc, steer wrestling and bull riding on the men’s side. On the women’s side, the events are barrel racing, breakaway roping and goat tying.
This year, the team hosts its annual SAU Intercollegiate Rodeo at Story Arena on Thursday, Nov. 3 through Saturday, Nov. 5, with events starting at 7 p.m. each night. Tickets are available online and at the gate. Catch all the events for only $10 for adults and $5 for kids and enjoy one of the best arenas in college rodeo. Although you won’t see mule riding, you’ll see some of the best college rodeo competitors in the U.S. as SAU’s rodeo team competes in its home arena in Magnolia.
All photos are courtesy of Rusty Hayes and the SAU Rodeo Team Facebook page and used with permission.
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