When Ben Londo took over as head coach of the Cal Poly rodeo team five years ago, he inherited a blue-collar program rich in history that was ready to take another step forward.
The college rodeo record books are filled with past Cal Poly greats, few more accomplished than Londo, a former two-time all-around national champion with 15 years of professional experience under his buckle.
Londo’s relentless work ethic — five hours of sleep qualifies as a good night — and championship pedigree have paved the way for Cal Poly’s exponential growth under his leadership since 2013.
The on-campus rodeo grounds have been completely revamped; student participation has more than tripled; a $1 million endowment awarded in 2016 has drastically increased scholarship money; and the long-running Poly Royal Rodeo has transformed into the largest college rodeo in the country.
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On April 13-14, the Poly Royal Rodeo will again be held inside 11,000-seat Alex G. Spanos Stadium, bringing an unmatched atmosphere to a Central Coast community rooted in the western way of life.
“Moving into the stadium, it’s given us such a broader audience,” said Londo, a 2007 Cal Poly graduate. “It takes everybody’s interest, and it’s something that the community’s really gotten behind and been proud of.”
More than 10,000 spectators attended last year’s Poly Royal Rodeo, despite Friday night’s performance being rained out. The weather was one of many logistical curveballs thrown at Londo in the weeks leading up to the marquee event, but the final performance brought a level of energy and entertainment not always seen on the pro rodeo circuit.
Those around the program say that success is a credit to Londo, a stoic 34-year-old father of two who possesses a unique ability to connect with students and peers alike. Though Londo would be the first to point out the Poly Royal Rodeo is far from a one-man operation, it’s clear he sets the tone for a massive undertaking.
“It honestly blows my mind,” said Becci Londo, Ben’s wife. “But knowing Ben and how Ben works, it doesn’t surprise me. He is an all-or-nothing type. He just wants everybody to be successful and be a part of this.
“He wants to share his passion.”
‘King of the college cowboys’
Londo’s love for rodeo was instilled at an early age growing up on his family’s cattle ranch in Milton-Freewater, a rural town of 7,000 in northeastern Oregon.
His father, Ned, was a national champion saddle bronc rider at Cal Poly in the 1960s, and he went on to compete professionally, even qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo four times, an accomplishment considered to be the pinnacle of professional competition.
Londo’s collegiate career at Cal Poly has been well documented.
During his junior year in 2006, the Los Angeles Times wrote a 1,500-word profile of Londo titled, "King of the college cowboys," comparing his athletic accomplishments with those of former USC running back and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.
By that point, Londo was already ranked in the top 25 of the pro standings, earning nearly $32,000 on the pro circuit while maintaining his status as a dean’s list student studying construction management.
After graduation, Londo was closing in on his first National Finals Rodeo berth when a major knee injury knocked him off course.
“I had to go get it completely rebuilt,” Londo said of the injury that shredded the ligaments in his knee. “As a lot of us rodeo cowboys do, I didn’t have a lot for insurance. I put a lot of medical bills on credit cards and whatnot."
Not one to stay down for long, Londo recovered and built his own Oregon-based construction company from the ground up.
When the coaching job at Cal Poly became available a few years later, the Londos jumped at the opportunity — with a little coaxing from Becci, who says, “I was definitely ready for it.”
Now with two young boys — Liam, 4, and Luke, 2 — Londo competes in fewer pro rodeo events each year.
Yet, as recently as 2016, he was ranked 23rd in the world standings, and last year he won three pro events and was co-champion at another. Londo has earned nearly $300,000 since his pro debut, according to his biography on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association website.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to leave home as much as I used to,” Londo said. “But I’m still very competitive and have the itch, but priorities have changed some.”
‘It’s a way of life’
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 when Londo started five years ago — and 30 other students participate in Cuesta College’s program, which serves as something of a “farm team” for Cal Poly, despite competing in the same region.
“He rolls out the red carpet for everyone,” said Gracely Speth, a freshman from Bozeman, Montana.
Currently, 118 student-owned horses are kept on campus, Londo said, and team members pay a $650 fee per horse each quarter to cover animal housing, community hay, cattle and use of the arena. The 2016 endowment from Mark and Jessie Milano increased scholarship offerings to $80,000 last year, taking some of the financial burden off of students.
Londo said he hopes similar steps can be taken in the future to keep the program on its current trajectory and maintain Cal Poly’s place among the college rodeo elites.
“You know, rodeo, it’s a lot more than just a sport," Londo said. “It’s a heritage. It’s a way of life. It’s the way I was raised growing up on a ranch and the western way of life. This is a sport that showcases the skills we use daily.
“So it’s not so much about, ‘Why rodeo?’ It’s ... ‘What else?’”