Back in the early 2000s, when he was just a college student, the only thing Ben Londo had to worry about was lowering himself onto 1,500 pounds of stallion confined in a bucking chute. Today, as Cal Poly’s Rodeo head coach, he worries about making sure his team wins the National Rodeo Championship.
Known as the “King of the College Cowboys,” Londo earned that moniker as an inter-collegiate rodeo star for Cal Poly’s Rodeo team, becoming a two-time champion at the National College Rodeo Finals in 2005 and 2006, and ranking in the top 25 of the pro standings. All this while maintaining Dean’s List standing as a Construction Management student, a degree he earned in 2007 and took home to his native Oregon.
He would return to Cal Poly in 2013 to become head coach of the Cal Poly Rodeo team, transforming the long-running Poly Royal Rodeo into the largest college rodeo in the nation.
Since 1956, the Cal Poly Rodeo program has earned 44 national titles, making it one of the most winning programs in National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association history and bringing national recognition to Cal Poly and its supporters. The Cal Poly rodeo program dates back to the first intercollegiate rodeo held on a ranch near Victorville, Calif., on April 8, 1939, when 15 student-athletes represented Cal Poly, and competitors Jim Blake and Carl Miller began its winning tradition. In 1951, Cotton Rosser and Don Koester continued that tradition in front of 4,000 spectators at the first Cal Poly Rodeo.
For Coach Ben Londo, who grew up on his family’s cattle ranch in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, rodeo is a family tradition, a way of life. Ben began riding calves at the age of ten under the watchful tutelage of his father, Ned, himself a rodeo champion. Ned was a champion saddle bronc rider at Cal Poly in the 1960s. He went on to compete professionally, reaching and qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo four times—an accomplishment considered the top of professional rodeo competition.
“Rodeo’s been in my family for four generations,” said Londo. “Growing up in the country, it’s so related to the work we do every day. It’s more than a sport. It’s a heritage.”
Under Londo’s leadership, Cal Poly’s Rodeo program is one of the top five programs in the country, student participation has more than tripled, and the on-campus Cal Poly rodeo grounds have been completely revamped.
Cal Poly’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium was converted into a rodeo arena for the 77th annual Poly Royal Rodeo last year. It was the first time the rodeo had been hosted at the 11,000-seat arena. More than 10,000 spectators attended last year’s Poly Royal Rodeo.
“Moving into the stadium has given us a much broader audience,” said Londo. “It takes everybody’s interest, and it’s something that the community’s really gotten behind and been proud of.”
The sheer magnitude of the undertaking aside, the event has had a major impact on the Cal Poly and Cuesta rodeo programs. The two teams practice together and are very closely intertwined. And they are already on an upswing under Londo’s leadership. Those around the programs say the 34-year-old father of two has a unique ability to connect with students and peers alike.
In 2016, the Cal Poly Rodeo program received a $1 million endowment from Mark and Jessie Milano, the largest ever for the program. This endowment has dramatically increased scholarship money. The Milano Family Rodeo Scholarship is awarded to Cal Poly rodeo students based on several criteria: leadership, academic performance, athletic contribution, financial need, teamwork and camaraderie.
“We see the Cal Poly Rodeo program preparing students for healthy, productive lives,” said Milano, a cattle rancher and retired oil industry executive. “We wanted to support that by helping worthy students who might otherwise not be able to attend.”
“The Milanos’ gift has taken our program from offering just a few students some financial assistance to offering many students a significant level of support,” Londo explained.
“I feel humbled to even be in the presence of these athletes,” Milano added. “Rodeo life is not all glory; it’s a culmination of hard work, dedication, and getting your hands dirty. To take on all of those responsibilities on top of a demanding scholastic program is just incredible.”
Inspiring them by example, Ben Londo was named Coach of the Year for the West Coast Region in the 2014-2015 standings. Here is what the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) says about him.
“Ben has amassed an admirable list of achievements, including four-time Saddle Bronc Champion for the Columbia River Circuit, and 12-time Dodge national circuit finals qualifications. … During his time on the Cal Poly Rodeo Team, Ben earned Bareback Riding and All-Around Championship titles for two years running at the College National Finals Rodeo. Ben strives to build students’ strengths both inside and outside the arena by stressing the importance of a commitment to both academics and practice. Under Ben’s guidance since fall of 2013, The Cal Poly Rodeo Team has continued to flourish as one of the most competitive college teams in the West Coast Region.”
After the success of last year’s Poly Royal Rodeo, Londo said he received interest from prospective high school students across the country wanting to attend Cal Poly and join a rodeo program that has 50 combined national championships to its credit.
The team includes 75 members this year—a sharp increase from the 26 who signed up when Londo started five years ago. Another 30 students participate in Cuesta College’s program, which serves as something of a “feeder team” for Cal Poly. Londo was instrumental in getting Cuesta’s program off the ground as well.
Londo has earned nearly $500,000 since his pro debut, according to his biography on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association website. Still active on the pro rodeo circuit, Londo was ranked 23rd in the world standings as recently as 2016, and this year, he won three pro events and was co-champion at another.
Though Londo has paid dearly for his rodeo success, breaking no fewer than 13 bones over the course of his rodeo career, he admits he still has the itch. Now with two young boys—Liam, 4, and Luke, 2—Londo competes in fewer pro rodeo events each year.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to leave home as much as I used to,” Londo said. “I’m still competitive and have the itch, but priorities have changed some.”
Priorities may have changed some, but for Coach Londo, the excitement, discipline, hard work, and love of rodeo remain the same—whether in the bucking chute or coaching from the rodeo grounds.