Smells Like Team Spirit

Fostering a bond between the marching band and the football team can engender more memorable and meaningful experiences for all who take the field on game day.

The University of Southern California football team just beat their bitter rival, UCLA, to cap off an undefeated 2004 season. It was official: USC was going to the national championship game! Most teams would be heading back to the locker room for some serious celebrations, but the USC players had a pit stop to make. As they have at every game for the past three decades, the team gathered in front of the band to hear the school’s battle cry, “Conquest.”

“They make the press wait, they make the fans wait, just so they can listen to the band play for them,” says Laura French, a senior in the USC Trojan Marching Band. “It’s a really moving experience to have the team come over to you after the game.”

Only this time, the players didn’t just stay for a couple of the fight songs. “We were there celebrating a good hour after the game ended,” says French, who plays alto saxophone and serves as the band’s general manager. “By that time, there was nobody in the stadium except the team and the band.”

Bands and teams automatically share a special bond. They both spend countless hours practicing in the heat and rain for a few short hours of play, they both stay until the end of the game no matter what, and they both really, really want the team to win. Here are some stories about how college bands crank up the team spirit.

Building a Legacy

The USC Trojan Marching Band has shared band/team traditions for more than 35 years. “In my opinion, we have the best relationship with our football team of any band in the country,” says band director Dr. Arthur C. Bartner.

With two national championships and three Rose Bowls in only the past four years, plus thousands of die-hard fans, one could argue that the USC team doesn’t need the marching band’s support. The coaches, thankfully, disagree.

Head Coach Pete Carroll surprises the band every year during band camp. “Pete Carroll comes over to the band practice just to encourage us and tell us what a great job we’re doing and how we inspire the players,” French says.

Bartner says that Carroll’s visit bolsters the band’s morale, which in turn helps the team. “[Band members] love it because nobody expects it,” Bartner says. “You know how hard you work during band camp—you’re all sweaty, and then this great coach comes over and peps everybody up, and the band’s ready to go again.”

The relationship began more than 35 years ago when Bartner started as director of the marching band and met assistant coach Marv Goux. “In my early years at USC, this assistant coach took me under his wing,” Bartner says of Goux. “He basically taught me how to be a Trojan.”

When Pete Carroll came to USC in 2000 from the New England Patriots, he called up the retired Goux to find out what the college marching band was all about, Bartner says. “[Goux] talked him through everything just like he did to me 35 years earlier and then said, ‘Give Bartner a call.’”

Every Friday night before a home game, the USC band rallies with the football team in Heritage Hall, which houses various sports trophies. The football players enter to “Tribute to Troy” and “Fight On!,” two school fight songs. The band surrounds them on the main floor and balcony. Both groups are out of uniform and wearing practice clothes, something most bands never experience.

After the fight songs, a player speaks to the band and the team. Then the band plays a rock chart, and a coach gives a speech. “They always mention the band and how we’ll be there standing beside them the whole day,” French says.

The band closes with “Tusk” and “Conquest.” During “Conquest,” a player stands on the drum major’s podium and conducts the band while holding the Trojan sword. “The best moment is when a senior player will conduct ‘Conquest,’ which is our anthem, our battle cry,” Bartner says.

During every rehearsal, the band plays to the team practicing one field over. They play a snippet of “Tribute to Troy” during any lull in practice. “We can play ‘Tribute to Troy’ up to 14 times in the rehearsal, just clips,” French says. “I think the team knows any time during the song, it’s for them. Just doing that, you feel like you’re a part of the team more than if you were just a fan. You feel like you have the ability to support them through whatever they have to face.”

Getting It Started

You don’t need 35 years of history to start bonding with the team. The Falcon Marching Band at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio has done so in just six. When football coach Urban Meyer—now coach at the University of Florida—taught at BGSU in 2001 and 2002, he had the football team go over to the band and salute them after a game, then the band would play school songs for the team. To this day, the team still gathers in front of the band after every game to raise their helmets as the band plays the “Alma Mater.”

When Dr. Carol Hayward became director of the band in 2003, continuing to build this relationship with the athletic department was a high priority, she says. Now every year during the middle of band camp, the band marches into the stadium and plays for the team.

In addition, the BGSU band plays fight songs for the team as players get off the buses in the morning. The band used to play a separate pre-game concert, but Hayward decided to combine audiences and pump up the team. Once the team goes inside for pre-game warm-ups, the band continues with its concert. “I thought if we could combine those two events, it would be a really positive thing, and it’s had a really great response,” Hayward says.

Students say they enjoy their positive relationship with the team. “In one year, she [Dr. Hayward] turned it around,” says euphonium section leader Nathan Johnson. “Every year our relationship with the football team has gotten better. The football team has gotten a little worse every year, but relations between us keep improving.”

The band marched through 40-degree temperatures in rain and mud during the final game of the year in mid-November 2006. “The band and the cheerleaders were the only people left at the end of the game,” Hayward says.

The team was so thankful to the band for its support through a difficult season that for the first time in school history all of the football players attended the band’s end-of-season concert.

Performing on Game Day

If you want to help the team on game day, there’s only one rule to follow: keep playing. Both USC and BGSU try to play every time the ball isn’t moving. USC has a different song for each position. Quarterback John David Booty’s song is “Ms. New Booty” by rapper Bubba Sparxxx (lyrics: “Booty booty booty booty rockin’ everywhere”). The defensive line’s song is “Another One Bites the Dust.” There are a dozen songs for the positions, plus songs for plays such as interceptions and penalties. “We feel like we’re playing the game with the team because every time they do a good play, we play something,” Bartner says.

The band also tries to rev up the student section by setting an example of the ideal fan—positive and loud. “The spirit we have, we hope it passes along to the student body,” French says. “We are the ideal Trojans. We cheer for every play whether it was a good play where we had a great tackle or threw an amazing pass or whether it was something where our guys dropped the ball, and they just needed a little, ‘Hey, keep going, you’ll get ’em this time.’”

The BGSU band especially feels that it has a responsibility to the team because student support is inconsistent. “It’s a problem getting fans to games at a MAC [Mid-American Conference] school,” Johnson says. “The fans who do go there don’t go there regularly, so they don’t know all the traditions. Everything we can do to create the atmosphere where the fans are totally involved with the game and team, anything we can play to start a cheer, that’s our job until halftime and until the game is over.”

Whether they’re winning the Rose Bowl or losing miserably in the pouring rain, the band and the team will play on. The experiences they share in and out of the stadium help both groups feel more connected to the school and one another.

“Not only am I a fan of the football games, but I get to go to the rallies and be in such a close proximity to the team,” French says. “It’s made it much more memorable. It’s made it more enjoyable. It’s added an element that you can’t really put into words. It’s the ultimate college experience.”

Photo by Ben Chua. All rights reserved.

About author

Amy Rushlow

Amy Rushlow was a drum major for the Northwestern University Marching Band, where football players were willingly subjected to band traditions when they visited rehearsals. She currently works as the editor of Chicago Athlete magazine.