The First College Football Playoff

The University of Oregon, University of Alabama, The Ohio State University and Florida State University were the unprecedented first schools to participate in the College Football Playoff. Find out how the marching bands prepared for the new system.

Photo by Tom Emerson

On Jan. 1, 2015, the College Football Playoff (CFP) began with the first games of a new post-season system for NCAA Division I football. Replacing the Bowl Championship Series, active from 1998 to 2013, the new system created the challenge of having to prepare for the possibility of a championship game before the playoff games had even taken place.

For marching bands, the problem was even more complicated. Weeks of preparation went into selecting and preparing a show and fulfilling bowl-specific duties while working out logistical issues at the same time, all with a championship game looming in the distance that may or may not end up on the travel docket.

For the 2014 to 2015 season, the University of Oregon Marching Band, Florida State University (FSU) Marching Chiefs, The Ohio State University (OSU) Marching Band and the University of Alabama Million Dollar Band accompanied their respective teams to the Rose Bowl (for Oregon and FSU) and the Sugar Bowl (for Alabama and OSU) for the chance to play in the 2015 College Football Championship Game in Dallas, Texas, on Jan. 12.

The College Football Playoff uses pre-selected existing bowl games as semifinals and adds on an additional championship game among semifinals winners, providing a new challenge for marching bands to overcome in their post-season performance schedule. Oregon, FSU, OSU and Alabama were the system’s guinea pigs, and their plans and performances set an example for every marching band that enters the playoff system from now on.

Oregon Marching Band

Oregon headed to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 1—its third appearance in the bowl since 2010. Dr. Eric Wiltshire, director of athletic bands, planned for potential bowl games months in advance, keeping track of the band’s shows and charts to see how they could be adapted to a post-season game, sometimes even charting the shows with a bowl game in mind.

The Rose Bowl gives both bands eight minutes each, which means that Oregon’s chosen show could be done with only minor editing.

“I look forward throughout the beginning of the season and think about what we’ve prepared through the course of the season that we’ll be able to use if we get to a bowl game,” Wiltshire explains. “The Pac-12 championship game gave us six minutes, which means cutting down the show some, but I always try to think about how we can plan a show for cuts. Sometimes, I even think about that as I chart.”

Because of Oregon’s winter break, the band held a rehearsal on the final exam date for the marching band course and was not able to reconvene until Dec. 27, the day before departing for the Rose Bowl. Wiltshire planned out the schedule to provide the band with as much rehearsal time as possible while also allowing them to have free time in between the Rose Bowl’s obligations.

The Rose Bowl has an additional commitment: the Rose Parade, held the morning of the game. Particularly challenging is the 110-degree turn, one of the most visible spots of the parade.

“I’ll send out a lot of emails and tell the band to go jogging,” Wiltshire quips. “It’s an exhausting day, starting around 3 a.m. and running until the end of the game. We’ll set a parade block before winter break, and then we’ll rehearse for the parade in California before the day of the game.”

Logistically, travel is not as difficult for Oregon, being relatively close to the site of the Rose Bowl. Wiltshire notes that the Rose Bowl officials themselves do much of the setup.

“Most of it is worked out in advance by the bowls, so that’s actually a fairly easy thing for us,” Wiltshire says. “Getting everybody and all the equipment there is the more difficult thing, but we’ve got it easy this time, with the Rose Bowl.”

For its Rose Bowl pregame show, Oregon performed the National Anthem and used long silks to form a flag on the field as well as incorporated the song “Runaway Baby” by Bruno Mars. For halftime, Oregon performed three 80’s hits by Huey Lewis and the News: “Hip to be Square,” “Heart of Rock and Roll” and “Couple Days Off.”

The championship game was more of an unknown quantity. “We [had] to have that trip planned whether we [went] on it or not,” Wiltshire says. “There isn’t enough time to start fresh after the Rose Bowl, so it adds another full trip to plan. With the Pac-12 championship being at a neutral site, we flew there, played the game and came back, having to immediately start planning for the Rose Bowl and the championship game at the same time.”

The biggest issue with these games, Wiltshire notes, was the time commitment the band had to ask of its students.

“As excited as they get about it, it is a lot of time to ask of them,” he says. “The conference championship game happened during exam week, and a lot of students couldn’t go because of presentations they had to do. The championship game is during the first week of classes, which creates another level of complexity.”

After Oregon won against Florida State University, 59 to 20, Wiltshire definitely got a chance to experience this longer season first-hand. “It’s exciting, but there’s a lot of logistics to work out.”

Florida State University Marching Chiefs

The Florida State University (FSU) Marching Chiefs appeared in the Rose Bowl alongside Oregon on Jan. 1. The group’s preparations seemed simple— rehearse before and rehearse on-site. Dr. Patrick Dunnigan, director of bands, looked back at the band’s shows throughout the year and pulled out the ones that were best suited for the time slots the Rose Bowl and championship game provided its band.

“We typically don’t learn any new material though we may learn a new formation or two,” he says. “There’s a lot of wildly varying amounts of time that they give you, depending on the sponsors and the venue. The Rose Bowl, which has a very high regard and respect for bands, gives us eight minutes.

As of mid-December, the bands didn’t know how much time would be allotted for their performances at the championship game. “I [didn’t] know what the folks in Dallas [were] going to have for us,” Dunnigan says.

Florida State had never been to the actual Rose Bowl game though they did perform in the Rose Bowl stadium for the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. This year marked its first appearance in both the bowl game and the Rose Parade. However, the band is experienced in traveling across the country.

Dunnigan notes that, of his 24 years at FSU, 23 of them have featured postseason travel commitments. Having to haul an entire band across the country provides a bit of extra challenge, but it is nothing that Dunnigan has not dealt with before. “We’ve had a lot of practice at it,” he says.

Preparations for the parade were not extensive; Dunnigan emphasized that his program taught parade marching skills alongside its basics.

The biggest challenge came from having to prepare for the championship should Florida State win its playoff game. The program had already begun planning for the possibility of a championship game, with aid from the bowl’s sponsors.

“The big difference is that if the team [won], we [would] have [had] to turn around and do another trip in a week,” Dunnigan explains. “That’s the new system, so it’s going to be in place for a long time.”

For its halftime performance in Pasadena, FSU reprised its viral Beyoncé show, including a dance routine to the song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”

The Ohio State University Marching Band

The Ohio State University Marching Band performed in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 and had appeared at that particular bowl four times prior. Dr. Christopher Hoch, the associate director of marching and athletic bands at Ohio State, had attended the bowl game twice as a student and a third time in 2010 as a staff member.

The students reconvened several days prior to flying out on Dec. 29 for several rehearsals to refresh the students on the music with additional rehearsals at the bowl site for the pregame and halftime show.

“Every bowl is different in what they want, in terms of length for a pregame show, length for a halftime show,” Hoch says. “For the Sugar Bowl, we’re looking at a full pregame show and about a sevenand- a-half minute halftime show, so it’s a lot more preparation. We have to take the bowl requirements and the length of time that they give us and design our rehearsal schedule around that.”

Planning which show to use is a collaborative affair between students and staff—the students choose their favorite shows, and the staff picks the most feasible and appropriate show from the results, cutting and moving aspects of the show around as necessary. This process is also heavily influenced by rehearsal schedules and commitments to performances outside of the actual bowl game.

“Some shows, for example, have a standstill number that can easily be cut out, so there’s no movement to it, and you don’t have to rewrite the drill,” Hoch says. “Some shows have parts of songs that we’re not moving to, so we can cut those out. Some shows are designed, so that there’s an easy place to cut in the movement, and some shows are designed with drill from beginning to end, so there’s no way to cut anything. It depends on the show, and it depends on the time allotment for what we can do.”

Hoch notes that the possibility of a second game was uncharted territory, and that most of their rehearsal plans would be built on the fly in the time leading up to the championship game.

“The system we use doesn’t really change at all, but if we were to go to a second game, we would have to improvise because that will be a new situation,” he says. “It would be during a time when we’re not used to rehearsing, so we’d have to set up a different schedule for that.”

After the Ohio State football team won against Alabama, 42 to 35, the possibility for a championship game became reality, and the marching band had to work fast to complete its preparations. “The fast turnaround just means that we all have to work a little harder to prepare for the championship game,” Hoch says.

Interestingly, Ohio State chose different shows for the Sugar Bowl and for the championship game. For the Sugar Bowl, the band performed a show titled, “They Came from Outer Space,” featuring music from the movies “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “Apollo 13” and “Independence Day.”

For the championship game, the band pulled from an entirely different show from earlier in the season and relearned it while in Texas.

“Due to some logistical considerations, as well as timing changes, we are not repeating the show we took to the Sugar Bowl,” Hoch says. “We will be doing our ‘Wizard of Oz’ show from earlier this season. Rehearsals begin Friday at 4 p.m. and will continue Saturday, Sunday and Monday when we are in Dallas. We are excited to put on a great show at pregame and halftime.”

Hoch says that the band is honored to be performing in the first of this new type of championship game. “It is extremely exciting that we are attending the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game,” he says. “We are honored to be going to Dallas, and we aim to represent our university with pride!”

The University of Alabama Million Dollar Band

For The University of Alabama Million Dollar Band, its bowl game preparations did not appear to be any different with the advent of the College Football Playoff, especially since the group appeared in back-to-back Sugar Bowls and had its 15th attendance this year.

“The thing with these semifinals is that these are the regular bowl games,” says Heath Nails, university bands program assistant. “We went to the Sugar Bowl last year, we know the area, we know the people we’re working with, we know the format already because it’s just a regular bowl. There might be a few small details that are different, but for the most part, this trip is just sort of a copy-paste from what we did last year. It just happens to be one of the semifinals as well. The preparation is kind of old hat for us because we’ve been there, we’ve done that.”

Members of the band regrouped on campus to rehearse the show and prepare for a shortened, unified pregame show with Ohio State prior to heading out to New Orleans. “We typically meet a day before we leave for the bowl trip for rehearsal to kind of get the show back in people’s minds and get them back in gear with our performance,” Nails says. “With bowl games, we often have to do a joint pregame with the other band—the national anthem, things like that. We rehearse the music a little bit, go through the halftime show, get that back in our heads, and then we’ll work on an edited pregame.”

Logistically, Alabama—like the other bands—had to do a lot of advanced planning. “I’ll sketch out a plan using old-fashioned pencil and paper,” Nails says. “I actually began pre-planning for the Sugar Bowl before we even played the SEC championship game. There’s such a small window of time to plan for these games; there’s only so much preliminary planning you can do. For instance, if we didn’t win our last regular season game, we weren’t going to the SEC championship, but we had to plan as if we did, and then, once we won, I had about two days to get everything ready. But the big bowl games give us a little more time to plan.” At the Sugar Bowl, Alabama performed its “Latin Fire” show. “We start out with the fun melody in ‘Land of Make Believe’ by [Chuck Mangione] and end the show with a very ‘spicy’ arrangement of ‘Malaguena,’” Nails says. “The band forms a picture of a bullhead on the field with smoke coming from its nostrils and ends with lots of red in the auxiliaries. This has been by far the students’ favorite show this year!”

Preparing for a potential national championship performance would have been more challenging. “We’ve never played there before,” Nails says. “We’re not sure how it works, having not worked with the people that run it, and it [would have been] a new experience for us because it’s unfamiliar territory.”

Overall, though, the new College Football Playoff system is exciting for the bands, students and teams even with all the new logistical issues. “From a marching band standpoint, the CFP system is exciting for the students but very hectic for me,” Nails says. “I think the CFP will eventually work itself out into a more efficient way of claiming a national champion. We just have to give it a little more time.”

About author

Joel King

Joel J. King is an editorial intern at Halftime Magazine. He is a senior at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa seeking a degree in magazine journalism. He marched trumpet with the Howell L. Watkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for a year and Palm Beach Gardens High School for four years as the high brass section leader. He has also marched mellophone and trumpet with the USF Herd of Thunder for a year each.