Why Ohio State’s Band Is Truly the Best in the Land
By BEN COHEN and SHARON TERLEP
Updated Nov. 1, 2013 7:39 p.m. ET
Courtesy of Ohio State University
Here in Ohio State country, it’s hard to say who is having a better season: the school’s undefeated football team or its marching band.
Once described as “the best damn band in the land” by Buckeye coaching legend Woody Hayes, the 192-member ensemble has been playing up to that billing lately. Clips of the band’s last two performances—a Michael Jackson medley that featured a formation of moonwalking mellophonists and a human-animated tribute to Hollywood blockbusters—have been viewed online at least 20 million times and reverberated across the country.
These mesmerizing and seemingly impossible formations, which have set an entirely new bar for marching bands, might only be possible at a high-profile football school with a $116 million athletic budget, a loud alumni base and a reverence for its band that dates to the 19th century. But at a time when many schools are scaling back their band budgets and putting more restrictions on travel, the real difference is Ohio State’s willingness to spend. Over the last two years, the school has quietly raised the band’s budget to $1 million from a relatively modest $220,000.
While that isn’t the best budget in the land—Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band, for example, operates with $1.1 million—it is well north of some of Ohio State’s peers. Texas allocated $590,000 this year for the Longhorn Band’s football operations and an Alabama spokeswoman said the school’s Million Dollar Band costs about $720,000 this season.
Other bands aren’t likely to be so fortunate. Between general cost-cutting in higher education and more spending on other forms of stadium entertainment, some bands are wary of their future. There already are signs of turbulence: In September, tuba players in Oklahoma’s band boycotted a practice to protest changes to the band’s leadership, while its alumni rented billboard space in Dallas to trumpet their concerns before a game there in October. Even Tennessee’s director was removed in October for speaking out against what he saw as the band’s minimized role.
Ohio State’s band has a history of innovation. Most famously, it is known for the spectacle of forming the word “Ohio” in a moving human script—with a sousaphonist dotting the “i” to raucous applause. The band’s role in football pageantry is so fundamental that in 2012, on his first day as the school’s new coach, Urban Meyer called band director Jonathan Waters at 8 a.m. to offer his appreciation and support.
In the past, Ohio State’s band had been backed by private donations and a contribution from the athletic department, but it was “chronically underfunded,” said Ohio State provost Joseph Steinmetz. Now, supported with additional funds from the president’s office and the liberal-arts college, the band raised the number of road trips this season to four from one, purchased a dozen new horns and paid for expenses that students previously covered out of pocket, like new spats and dry-cleaning services. There was also an investment made in specially designed software and iPad technology that helps the band’s directors choreograph complex drills.
The band’s first star turn came last year when it performed a romp through videogame history. As it played theme music from The Legend of Zelda, Pokémon and Tetris, members marched in the form of Pac-Man chasing cherries. The show, which ended as the band spelled the words “game over,” racked up 15 million views on YouTube.
Planning for this season’s shows began in late February, when band members suggested 100 ideas, a list that was whittled down to seven themes. (For its lone remaining home game, against Indiana on Nov. 23, the band is practicing a patriotic suite closing with a riff on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Waters said.)
A staff of arrangers handled musical composition in the spring, and the directors then choreographed the visual component with iPad technology. Band members memorize their parts by practicing every weekday for two hours.
In its Oct. 19 routine, the band played “Billie Jean” while taking the shape of a white-gloved Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk. After the show, Jackson’s mother, Katherine, called Waters with congratulations.
For its next act, last Saturday, the band unveiled a tribute to Hollywood, including Superman flying out of a phone booth and Harry Potter riding a broomstick. The final scene of the movie suite—which it will reprise Saturday at Purdue—is a re-enactment of “Pirates of the Caribbean” that features a dinosaur snacking on a Michigan player and spitting out his helmet and climaxes as one ship with an Ohio State flag sinks another boat flying Michigan’s flag.
The YouTube views for both halftime shows were higher than the number of viewers (5.3 million and 4.1 million) who watched the actual games on TV, according to Nielsen. That is music to at least one Buckeye sousaphonist’s ears: “I would love to see halftime shows that are only of the band playing,” Zachary Naughton said at a recent practice. “They can scroll the scores across the bottom of the screen.”
Waters won’t disclose which show Ohio State will take to Michigan on Nov. 30. “That’s a well-guarded secret,” he said. But Michigan’s band, which cast Ohio State mascot Brutus as the villain in an August show, isn’t taking its rival’s bait for now. “We don’t plan to do anything back,” said Michigan band director John Pasquale.