Fun and quirky traditions make collegiate marching band a whole different ball game, so to speak.
Photo by Gopher Photo
For many fans, each college football game day is as sacred a holiday as New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving, full of tradition, celebration and spirit. And for the marching bands, an entire day’s worth of rituals and routines have developed around game day.
While most high school marching bands are all about the competition—striving for performance perfection— college and university marching bands exist to pump up the crowds and support the athletic teams.
A college campus on game day is like one big party, full of tailgates, picnics and special events leading up to the big game. Some marching bands go around campus, playing for various audiences, while others “perform” a pregame practice that is an event not to be missed.
“When we rehearse before the game, thousands of the fans come to watch,” says Dr. John Pasquale, director of the University of Michigan Marching and Athletic Bands in Ann Arbor. “Then the drumline performs a Stepshow in front of Revelli Hall which is really anticipated and attended by many spectators as well.”
Nearby at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, the band gives a public warm-up concert at Adams Field, which has become one of the campus’ most popular tailgating locations.
Stemming from the Big Ten Athletic Conference tradition of playing the opposing band’s fight song, the Spartan Marching Band has developed a fun ritual of friendly competition. “I’ll start scanning the crowd, and we’ll look for some opposing fans,” says John Madden, director of the Spartan Marching Band. “If there are a few, we’ll do an auction for them to make a donation to our band, and then we let them go up the ladder to conduct the 20-second version of their fight song. It’s an exercise of goodwill. We have some fun with it, then we segue into our fight song.”
At the end of its warm-up, the University of North Carolina (UNC) Marching Tar Heels band performs a chant called “the Throwdown.”
“It’s a call and response from one student to the band; it’s typically a limerick about the opponent for that day written by the students,” says Jeffrey Fuchs, director of bands. “We do it for the public that are watching our final moment. It’s a hype event for the kids and starts the event of moving to entering the public arena of the stadium.”
After a portion of the University of Maryland Marching Band performs at the “Terp Town” alumni center tailgates, the band members gather for a tailgate of their own. “Evey section has a a tailgate,” says Jacob Knippel, drum major of the Mighty Sound of Maryland. “A lot of parents from Maryland and even some from farther, even out of state, come to set up this tailgate for us to eat before we march down to the tunnel.”
The March Over
Each marching band has its own personality, and one of the quickest indicators is what they do while marching to a cadence. Though some bands go for a regimented and serious demeanor, others show their spirit by getting silly.
Madden considers “The Series” cadence at Michigan State to be one of his band’s top traditions. Dating back to the 1950’s, the string of beats developed as students from around the country began going to MSU, taking their regional drum cadences with them. Eventually section-specific chants and choreography were added. When it became too cluttered, the band declared a moratorium on new additions, and the routine has remained unchanged since.
“It’s a strapped-down, game-faced gutsy performance; it’s become iconic,” Madden says. “For us it’s the ultimate badge of honor and the hardest thing for new students to learn. It’s prioritized during preseason camp, where we dissect every maneuver and show how the horn comes up and down and how we play the fight song in and out of The Series.”
While the Maryland cadence also has a cool name, “The Truck,” it could not be more different from “The Series.” “It’s all pretty much one big chant, and a lot of it is taught on the fly,” Knippel says. “Every section has its own lyrics comprised of inside jokes, and someone will find choreography to put with it. Sometimes there are some failures, and other times something clicks.”
Knippel believes that the band’s “trucking” can have a profound effect on the fans and by proxy the football team.
“The fans know it, they know what it sounds like, and when they hear that coming, they’re already starting to get excited,” he says. “When everyone’s into it, that just sets off a great atmosphere at the football game, and we hope that energy transfers to the football team.”
At UNC, new sequences are added to the cadence every two to three years; however, Fuchs says that there’s always enough of a core left, so that alums from 20 or 30 years ago can still come back and join in on some of the chants and choreography. The routines are created totally by the students with the drum majors taking the lead and the staff staying completely hands off.
“We view it as the one thing the students do on game day that is 100 percent for them,” Fuchs says. “We try to let that be their sacred moment. The crowd sees the kids having fun. If you look at the students’ faces, they’re all smiling and happy. It entertains the crowd, and it’s part of what they expect to see from our group.”
Bending Over Backwards
Once in the stadium, some college drum majors perform a daring feat—the backbend— that bears little resemblance to a high school drum major’s salute. Usually during a band’s pregame show, the backbend requires a drum major to lean all the way back, touching his or her head (often sans shako) to the ground without letting knees or bottom drop to the field.
“It’s been a Big Ten marching tradition for as long as I can remember,” says Brandon Folkes, drum major of the University of Minnesota Marching Band. “The backbend itself is a challenging endeavor to say the least. You don’t just say one day, ‘I’m going to do a backbend,’ especially if you’ve never done gymnastics. Needless to say I had an adequate supply of Advil when I first started training.”
Not only does Folkes complete the backbend without his hat, but he also holds his position while two band members take a flying leap over the length of his body. In previous years he has also done flips as part of his routine.
“Doing the backbend during our pregame performance is probably my favorite moment of every game day or even the experience of being drum major,” Folkes says. “Literally, the drum major is bending over backwards, and I’m bending over backwards for the band.”
Drum majors at many Big Ten schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities perform the backbend. At some, the drum majors also do a mace toss over the goal post. If they catch it, it predicts that their team will win.
“When you hear the crowd react, it brings a smile to my face because that means that they do understand, they’ve done their due diligence and have studied their own history and see that it’s important,” Folkes says. “Something I’ve added on into my own routine is after I catch the goal post toss, I get a sense of reckless abandonment. I throw my hat and mace down, and I jump up into the crowd and get them revved up.”
In The Stands
Once up in the stands, college marching bands have many more opportunities to play than high school bands.
“If you’re in the restroom, you can tell what’s going on in the game because of those specific sounds you hear the band playing,” Fuchs says. “We announce every third down, successful stop, every first down [and when the] offense and defense come on the field. There’s a tune associated with it.”
Pumping up the crowd isn’t the only reason for cheers, tunes and choreography in the stands; fun interludes can also get the band on TV.
“I think college bands know they exist for one reason: because there’s a football team at their school,” Madden says. “We know our place, and it’s time to play ball, and everybody’s all in. … But bands can get on TV in the stands if they’re active … if they’re into the game and doing something interesting.”
Most bands take off their shakos during the games and don baseball caps instead. The luckiest schools get sponsorship deals based on their relationship with their athletic departments.
“We wear hats in the stands—they stuff them into the shakos [during pregame],” Pasquale says. “We’re sponsored, and that’s all done through the athletic department. Adidas provides shirts, shorts and hats to the students at no cost to them.”
After the game, most college bands perform a post-game show. Depending on the game’s outcome, certain songs might be played or omitted. For example, Michigan State only plays the fight song during post game if the team wins.
Michigan, Maryland and Minnesota, among others, all have a tradition of wearing their shakos backwards after wins.
“When we win at home, we put our shakos on backwards for ‘the Truck,’” Knippel says. “I’m sure someone just thought, ‘Why not?’ They did it, and then a section was doing it, and the band just catches on, and it’s tradition that we do it every time we win.”
Likewise, Pasquale has no idea how the tradition started at Michigan. “If the team wins, we turn our shakos backwards for the march back to the stadium,” he says. “I have no idea how that tradition got started, but it’s been around forever.”
Proof of ID
So from performances to cadences to backbends, what is the purpose of all these quirks? “What it does is that it all helps to create an identity for the band and the school,” Pasquale says. “Everything that we do becomes a part of our identity. When we play ‘The Victors,’ or do horn flashes during the cadence, it comes to be a part of what the audience expects from us.”
No matter where they go to school, college marching band students have a lot of rich tradition to learn and celebrate. “College band is really a great part of what makes college football pageantry different than anything else on the planet,” Madden says.
About the Author
Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor for Halftime Magazine and a freelance journalist and communications professional in Los Angeles. She marched flute at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band, where she now works as a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.