The following is a guest post from former All-American Marching Band member Corey Ross.
There is nothing quite like college football.
I grew up in a household where college football was the king on Saturdays in the fall. During the college football season, televisions in our household were glued to the Big Ten Network or whichever network had the best game on (prior to the creation of BTN). If we were not home on a Saturday, we were driving to a sporting event with the radio tuned to a college football game. I was raised a die-hard Fighting Illini fan because my dad was a student manager for the football team in the 70’s. Growing up an Illinois fan in the mid-2000’s had its ups and downs with the 2008 Rose Bowl and the 2005 National Runner-Up season in basketball. However, in 2013, I swapped my navy and orange for old gold and black when I decided to go to Purdue and pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Throughout the process of narrowing down schools, my dad and I would always go back to discussions about the football programs: where they were in development and what they were known for. The football team was never the largest contributing factor to my final decision, but it did matter greatly to me because I would be auditioning for marching band in the fall.
During my four years as a student, I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band (AAMB). Anyone who has attended a Purdue football game at Ross-Ade Stadium has experienced the AAMB, but they might not be familiar with what it’s actually like to be in the band. While the ‘official’ marching band season starts with a week-long band camp prior to the beginning of fall semester, there are still countless hours put in by new members, veteran members, and all the faculty and staff months before the semester starts.
Some readers might be laughing at the prospect of band camp (thanks American Pie), but I assure you band camp in college is nothing like the movie. At Purdue, band camp serves as a week-long audition from 8AM-8PM, everyday. Membership within the band is determined towards the end of the week. Often times, potential candidates will spend extra hours before and after rehearsals on the practice field working on marching technique and musical ability to help their chances of making the band. In total, the amount of time spent just to audition for the band can be well over 12 hours a day. All while trying to focus (and sleep? What is sleep?) and remember that classes start in just a few days.
I was a three-sport athlete in high school and I can honestly say that I was blown away by how physically and mentally exhausting my first band camp was; it is not for the faint hearted. At the end of the week, all of the hard work put in before and during band camp pays off for some people, but for others it ends in heartbreak. Band camp concludes on the Saturday before classes with a full game-day walk through, sound check in Ross-Ade, and a celebratory concert for family and friends to get the first sneak peak of that season’s band. This leaves only a couple of hours on Saturday evening and Sunday to finish moving into dorms/houses and prepare for classes, including band, again. During the school year, rehearsals are five days a week and a minimum of two hours long. Many students go above and beyond that in order to memorize music and prepare drill for that week’s show. A typical noon-kickoff gameday starts at 6AM for the band and does not end until 4:30PM - 5PM. If you are keeping count at home, that totals to over 20 hours on an average game week. That is a lot of dedication for just a couple of short concerts, pregame, and halftime show each week. We do it because we care about enhancing the college gameday experience as well as representing our university to the highest of standards.
When you are in the band, you often have some of the best seats in the house, which is one of the great perks of being in the band. You are right there for all of the action and often stand on the sidelines for last-minute drives before halftime. However, sometimes that perk is a double edged sword, because when your team is stinking it up, you cannot just leave or turn the television off. We are expected to continue showing nothing but support for our team and it can be absolutely excruciating at times. During my time at Purdue we experienced much of the later. I stated earlier that I attended Purdue from 2013-2017 and most of you readers recognize that as a deep, dark era for Purdue football: the Darrell Hazell era. It was the single worst four year span in Purdue football history. Any die-hard fan will tell you that it was nearly impossible to watch, and some fans even stopped watching the team all together. But, when you are part of the marching band, you always have to have the team’s back regardless of the score and that becomes quite difficult to do when you are a die-hard fan. The culmination of this was late in my career at Purdue during a raining and freezing Saturday blow-out game. At one point late in the fourth quarter, I genuinely thought the only people left in the stands were opposing fans and parents of players, band members, and cheerleaders. I can guarantee that no one in the stadium wanted to be there, but the game must go on, and so it did, and so did the band. I think in our current culture in America, every member of band is seen as nerdy, unathletic people who know nothing about football, but that could not be further from the truth. I recently polled a Facebook group of current and former members of all Big Ten marching bands about their knowledge of football:
Big Ten Band Members’ Knowledge of Football
|Understand Schemes/Plays or Played in High School||60|
|Full Understanding of Rules||220|
|Basic Knowledge of Rules||161|
|“I know what a touchdown is”||5|
|“I’m just here for band”||17|
This goes to show that in general, band members have a big interest in the game of football itself and do not just view it as something happening before and after the halftime show.
In college football, there can be varying relationships between the football team and the marching band. At some schools, you have great traditions of football players leading the band in the alma mater after wins or players jamming out to songs with the band
At other schools there is minimal, if not any, interaction between the team and the band.
As a former athlete, I understand that players want to ‘get in the zone’ prior to games, and coaches want minimal distractions for their players. However, during my time at Purdue, there was some disrespectful behavior, both intentional and unintentional that I witnessed. When Darrell Hazell took over at Purdue, he had introduced the now-defunct 211 Session. The purpose of the 211 Session was to bring the team, band, spirit squad and fans together for a pre-game pep rally at Mackey Arena. It was a near copy of the very successful Skull Session at The Ohio State University, in which the band would perform while the team entered and left with coaches and players speaking in between songs to help pump the crowd up for the game.
Initially, there was underwhelming-sized crowd for the 211 Session, and many people believed it was due to the lack of advertisement. As the weeks and seasons passed, the crowd got smaller and smaller, and it became clear that nobody wanted to be there - including a few members our football team. It came to a point where several players would not take off their headphones for the entire event. For the people who spend many hours a week preparing for gameday, it felt like a huge slight to the band and spirit squad. Not only was it disrespectful to the band and spirit squad, but it also was to the fans and even their own coaching staff. This really isn’t meant to be an indictment against the players themselves, but more of the Hazell staff. After all, it was Hazell who requested this event to take place when he first came to Purdue and the headphone situation soon became a reflection of the culture that his coaching staff was allowing.
Other disrespectful actions came at the end of games when the band would play Hail Purdue on the field with the team, a long-standing tradition at Purdue. After every game, the players would go through the motions by singing and oftentimes mumbling the words. They would then turn their backs and start walking away before the song was finished. This felt especially bad because the band and spirit squat would sit through the football games, cheering and supporting the team only to have the team turn their backs on everyone after each game. This one still stings the most, more than any of the losses, when I think about it. I am sure many members in both the band and spirit squad that experienced it feel the same way.
Any fan can tell you that the Hazell era was a huge failure, but now you know it was a failure all the way down to the general gameday experience for just about everyone involved. Now, those very same fans will tell you that year one of the Jeff Brohm era was successful. Did the disrespectful behavior carry over from the Hazell years? I can, without a doubt in my mind, say no, no it did not. In fact, the exact opposite happened.
The 211 session officially was buried and the band has returned to performing the ‘Thrill on the Hill’ concert at Slayter Hill. This allowed the football players and staff to have more time to mentally prepare for their game on their own. Players now stand and sing through Hail Purdue, and more importantly, they wait for it to finish, regardless if they won or lost.
One of the other incredible perks about being a member of the band is bowl travel. Oftentimes, during bowl travel the band and team get into interact as groups outside of the whole gameday experience when neither group is stressed out or preoccupied. As many readers are aware last season Purdue went to a bowl game for the first time since Danny Hope’s last season. We even got to see some great interaction between the band and players when Elijah Sindelar brought the Foster Farms Bowl trophy over to the band for pictures after the win in California! Who knows, maybe one day we will see players conduct Hail Purdue after big wins?!
Rolling into year two of the Jeff Brohm era has the entire Purdue community beyond faithful and excited for this upcoming season with the Hazell Era well in the rear view mirror. While the future is as bright as ever, there are still some uncertainties. However, I can guarantee you one thing - whether the Boilermakers are smelling manure or roses in the future, the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band will always be proud supporters of Purdue football.