July 3, 2014

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MARTIN, Tenn. – Privately, both John Luthi and Nelson Davis had visions of the University of Tennessee at Martin men’s rodeo team taking home top honors at the 2014 College National Finals Rodeo. When those thoughts occurred though may have served as a surprise.

“I never told anybody but I thought this group could go and have the experience and opportunity to win our first title when they were freshmen,” said Luthi, UT Martin’s head rodeo coach since 1997. “We’ve taken some very talented teams to the CNFR and this was another good group.”

“I knew when the seniors were freshmen,” said Davis, UT Martin rodeo assistant coach and athletic trainer who has been a part of the program since 1988. “That bunch carried us for four years and we had two guys that qualified for the finals as freshmen, sophomores and juniors that just barely got shut out this year and didn’t get to make the trip.”

Fast forward four years later and both predictions were spot on. Last month, the UT Martin men’s team disproved traditional rodeo wisdom and became the first team east of the Mississippi River to claim a national championship. UT Martin accumulated 755 overall points at the CNFR in Casper, Wyo., edging out Tarleton State University (730 points).

Not only did the UT Martin team make geographical history but all of its six finals participants (and one cowgirl) were born and raised on the east side of the Mississippi River.

“I feel rodeo in this part of the country is finally getting the credit it deserves,” Luthi said. “When I first came to the Ozark region, we weren’t looked at as being a very tough region. I feel like with the coaches that we have in the region, our competitiveness has escalated in a big way. It’s a neat deal to do something that nobody has ever done.”

Davis was also glad to dispel the unfair notion.

“Being the first team east of the Mississippi River to win is a major deal because we’ve been told for years that we couldn’t compete,” Davis said. “They used to say if you had a kid around here that could rope, they thought they had to go to Oklahoma or Texas. You’re not supposed to have cowboys this side of the Mississippi River. But for the last several years, we’ve had national individual champions from our region.”

While the final margin of victory wound up being just 25 points, UT Martin’s cowboys took a lead after Day 2 of the seven-day event and did not concede the top spot in the standings. Will Lummus (steer wrestling and calf roping), Tyler Waltz (bareback riding), Clark Adcock (calf roping, team roping), Tanner Phipps (bareback riding), John Alley (team roping), Colt Kitaif (bareback riding) represented the men’s team while Nealey Dalton (barrel racing) also qualified for the CNFR from the women’s squad.

“They weren’t intimidated at all with the stage,” Luthi said. “There wasn’t really a situation all week that I didn’t feel like they did all they could do. When Tyler and Clark won the first round, that was a great start. As the week went on, I knew we were doing well but we had to finish. I could tell they were loose, relaxed and ready when we went into the short round on Saturday.”

Luthi and Davis did not spend much time dwelling on the points or place in the standings. They were given periodic updates from Luthi’s wife Diane and daughter Katelyn, who both spent the week in Casper for the first time in nearly eight years. It was actually Katelyn who was the first to inform her father that UT Martin had won the team championship, as she pulled up the final standings on her smart phone.

“They were calculating points and figuring out stuff all week and I just left that to them,” Luthi said with a chuckle. “I was tickled that they both got to be there to share that moment with me.”

Overall, UT Martin competed in 10 rodeos in 2013-14 and finished first in eight of them. The other two finishes were second place outings. But what made this title so special was the contributions from each and every cowboy throughout the season.

“It wasn’t only the guys that went to the finals that helped us do that, it was the team all year long,” Luthi said. “Everybody on the team had an impact on us being able to win just by doing their part in the region. It was a great team effort – everybody came together and was supportive and helpful with each other.”

“Every kid we took out there got points so it was a true team championship,” Davis said. “Even after they knew they were out of it as an individual, they still buckled down to get those team points to help us win when they could’ve gotten disgusted and said ‘I’m done’. They just kept coming and competing hard every round.”

Of course, some of the credit has to be deflected to Luthi. One year after garnering National Coach of the Year honors by the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, the humble Luthi saved his best coaching performance for 2014, the same year he notched his 13th Ozark Region championship in 17 years and led the program to its 41st consecutive CNFR appearance.

Davis was on the seven-person search committee to hire Luthi at UT Martin. After Luthi emerged as the clear-cut top candidate for the job, Davis and a few other members of the rodeo’s booster club personally drove to Fort Scott, Kan. on their own dime to help Luthi make the move from Fort Scott Community College to UT Martin.

“From Day One – this is what we have been working towards,” Davis said. “It’s still hard to believe – just all of the hard work, the hardheadedness, the perseverance, the people that came before us – this is the culmination of that. We thought Coach Luthi was the man to help save our program and keep it going strong. I fully believe that if we hadn’t hired him, we wouldn’t be talking about a national championship right now. There’s no one else like him. He would be the last one to take any credit for anything but he lives it.”

If you assume the UT Martin coaching staff is going to sit back and enjoy the 2014 national championship, you’ve got another think coming. Although Luthi concedes that the 2014-15 recruiting was completed before he left for Wyoming, both he and Davis will return to the state later this month to attend the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs to identify potential UT Martin cowboys and cowgirls for 2015-16 and beyond.

Luthi’s 2014-15 signing class has already brought along a buzz while the team will bring back several veteran returners.

“We lost some really good kids but we also have some good kids coming in and some really talented individuals coming back,” Luthi said. “I’m not going to make any predictions but I know we have a good group. The biggest thing is if we can do our part with the talent we have, there shouldn’t be a limit to what we can accomplish.”

“We don’t plan to sit back and rest on this championship,” Davis said. “Next year, we have the guys who have been there before and also guys that got left home this year that are hungry to go that are coming back. We’ve signed some guys that have already been there before for other schools. On the women’s side too, we have five girls coming back next year that have been to the college finals before so we’re looking for them to step up. We’re looking for this to carry over all the way across the board. It’s hard to get to the top and it’s harder to stay there but UT Martin rodeo has never considered ourselves having to rebuild, just reload.”

It’s been a whirlwind of firsts for Luthi. In addition to UT Martin becoming the first team east of the Mississippi River to win the national rodeo title, it also is the first-ever national team championship for any UT Martin athletic program.

“I’m thankful to be able to be a part of bringing home a national title to UT Martin,” Luthi said. “So many things could have happened in that situation, God must have just thought it was our turn. I’m really appreciative of all the support that we get from the university, the booster club and the community. This wouldn’t have been possible without all of that.”

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