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Off Beat Empire: Bowl Games

The perfect reward for a long season

1 Jan 1996:  View of the Rose Bowl between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Southern California Trojans in Pasadena, California.  Southern California won the game 41-32. Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn  /Allsport
Nothing is better... nothing

A weekly roundup of B1G marching bands and related topics

Paradise for the Holidays

Last week, we covered some of what goes into Road Trips as a member of the marching band. Today we will cover the most special of all Road Trips for a marching band member, the Bowl game.

Let’s just start out by talking about the resources available to a marching band for a Bowl trip. Most of the Bowls applicable to the B1G are big money affairs, with payouts at $4 million -$6 million per team for NY6 / CFP games and $3.5 million or more for the second tier games (Outback, TaxSlayer, Citrus). Even the lower tier Bowls have good payouts, at $1.7 million - $2 million for third tier bowls (Holiday, Music City, Pinstripe), and ~$1.2 million+ for lower tier games. Although not true in all instances, many Bowls will also have a travel budget that is designed to cover both the team and various support groups (cheerleaders, marching bands, etc.), which can total as much as $2.16 million for each CFP game, but will generally be at least $250,000 for even MAC level games. For reference, the shared gate paid to a visiting team in the B1G ranged between a $300,000 minimum to $1 million maximum, so you’re already light years ahead of resources available for the typical road trip. In addition, because Bowl games are extraneous events not usually factored into athletic department budgets and travel costs are excluded from what is shared with the remainder of the conference, schools tend to be more relaxed about using resources at the event as opposed to saving proceeds for other purposes. Considering the economics in play, setting aside a budget of $200,000 - $500,000+ for the marching band isn’t usually a big deal.

Most Bowl trips start out by gathering on campus the day after Christmas (perhaps earlier for the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit and Kraft Fight Hunger in San Francisco). Aside from being able to arrange lower-cost bulk transport to the Bowl destination than flying everyone direct, it is important to i) give students a chance to drop off supplies for when classes resume, as they will be traveling straight back to campus after the Bowl, and ii) just get organized and deal with any band members who might get stranded and / or are unable to attend for some unknown reason (i.e. illness, family emergency, etc.). Usually, the band will practice for a day or two on campus and make final arrangements for the shipment of equipment before departing. The pregame and halftime shows have already been practiced throughout December while class is still in session, so any time spent rehearsing is usually just a quick refresher. The biggest challenge during this period is that University housing is typically closed and most schools will not make hotel arrangements, which means that bands have to get creative about splitting into off-campus apartments or possibly sleeping on the floor in some large rehearsal room or on-campus gym.

After a brief period of one or two days on campus, the band will then usually fly out on a chartered flight with the spirit squad and distinguished staff / alumni (probably just buses for the Quick Lane Bowl). Hotel accommodations are usually pretty good for Bowl games (albeit, you will still get 4-5 people sharing what would usually be a two-person room). Specifically, the hotels will likely have been selected by the Bowl committee in advance, and will usually be in some reasonable location close to the game itself or at least near most of the local events the band will be attending. Most meals will be served in a hotel ballroom converted to a dedicated dining area, and most ground transportation will be in the form of a few charter buses to take the group around.

One of the things that is great about Bowl trips is there is very little actual work involved. Bands are expected to attend a variety of events, which will usually include performances at key tourist locations, perhaps an alumni gathering or two, and likely at least one parade related to the game / New Year’s celebration. However, these events are usually very brief (half hour or so) and the band is then given free rein to do some sightseeing. For example, if you’re at the Citrus Bowl, Disney is going to want to have you play a concert inside one or more of their theme parks, after which they are going to let you roam and enjoy the park for at least a few hours (likely half day). In essence, you’re getting free tickets to see all of the local tourist attractions - all you need to do is play for 30-60 minutes. Parades are a bit more of a chore, as they might involve miles of parade route (the Rose Bowl parade is almost six miles) and they are usually done in full uniform (pep events are usually 50/50 between full uniform and some abbreviated uniform, like a common T-shirt and shorts). Still, that’s not much of a price to pay for what is usually a solid 3-4 days of comfortable sightseeing.

With regard to shenanigans / partying, well, you’re on vacation and it’s not like the band is keeping anybody on a really tight leash. In fact, many of the “tourist” events that you attend will end in some common bar / drinking / dancing area, so you’re essentially going out partying on a band / Bowl sanctioned event (particularly New Year’s Eve). People will definitely supplement with smaller hotel gatherings in certain rooms. Honestly, though, I don’t remember anybody truly getting trashed. Like I said, you’re already on vacation, nobody was really looking over your shoulder, and you normally had things scheduled the next day that you actually wanted to do, so some of the pressure to really go wild just didn’t seem to be there in a big way. Others may have had different experiences, but I just remember having a good time.

The game itself is pretty much the same as any other game - both bands perform some form of pregame and halftime show and then play in the stands as appropriate. In most bowl games, there is some sort of high school dance squad North Korean-style mega performance that will eat up half of the time otherwise available for bands. The high school show is usually pretty stupid and involves a lot of colorful costumes paired with really bad choreography that was first taught to 9-15 year-old kids two days before the game. It’s nothing special, but it helps to trick 500-1000 parents into buying a ticket to the game. It also makes sure that the actual band performances are very short so both bands can perform, which usually means an abbreviated section of a show that was done earlier in the year (one exception is the Rose Bowl, where the bands will dominate halftime and will perhaps even do an original show just for that event).

After the game, there is usually a pretty quick push to get home. Most bands will leave that night back to campus, even if it means a red eye flight after a night game. By the time you get home, campus housing has usually re-opened and classes may be starting as soon as the next day or two.

To quickly recap my personal experiences, after missing a Bowl game my first two years (part of what was then a 47-year Bowl drought for Northwestern), I was incredibly spoiled to be able to participate the 1996 Rose Bowl and 1997 Citrus Bowl. Northwestern was obviously a big story for that 1995 season, so we were invited everywhere and given all sorts of access to tourist events, including Disneyland, Universal Studios, Santa Monica Beach and Pier (we stayed nearby), and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the floats. The only thing tough about the whole trip was getting up early for the parade and having to march six miles before the game, then leaving on a red eye - it was a long, exhausting day. Citrus Bowl was pretty much all Disney parks plus some bar districts. Aside from things covered above, I was one of about half the band to dye their hair purple for the trip. Although being told it would wash out in a matter of a week (only took ~3 days for me), some of our more blond members discovered that they had purple hair for a month. Also, f@# Keyshaun and f@#k Peyton Manning.

In all, if you were a member of the marching band at a Bowl game, you have probably had a really good experience. Unless you have been unlucky enough to be shipped off to Detroit or perhaps New York, you have probably gotten a bit of sunshine in December or January, which is enough to make the average Midwesterner cry tears of joy. You probably didn’t work all that hard, but got to see a lot of interesting, touristy things. Your team maybe even won a prominent game (and if you were Ohio State, you actually got to go to another one a week later). Even if they didn’t (which, let’s face it... this is the B1G where winning bowl seasons are rare), you still had a great little vacation that put a nice cap on a year of hard work.



Although we don’t have anything posted yet for Indiana’s home finale versus the Scarlet Knights, we did get video posted for their Nov. 4th game versus Wisconsin, which included a variety of Motown hits such as “Hey Mr. Postman”, “Dancing in the Streets”, and “Stop in the Name of Love”. The first and third pieces featured some simple, but effective drill that mostly involved pinwheeling and inverting lines, with the middle piece being a set piece featuring Indiana’s dance squad. The sound was fairly good throughout, although there wasn’t anything that really blew my socks off. Overall, it was a fairly routine show for the Marching Hundred.

The Hoosiers post their video in a format that can’t be embedded, but can be viewed by clicking this link (select 2017-11-04 vs Wisconsin - Halftime from the playlist).


Also in the spirit of “catching up”, we have video posted for Wisconsin’s game against the Hawkeyes on Nov. 11th, but nothing yet for their recent game against Michigan. For the Nov. 11th show, the band featured a musical that I honestly don’t know much about despite it being popular in my youth, Miss Saigon. The Band performed what I believe was more sets than usual in this particular performance, but it’s still the typical square / diamond / on a yard-line or half-between show that makes Wisconsin... well... Wisconsin. This is the first time I realized that Wisconsin actually had woodwinds... I had never seen a clarinet or saxophone before this show, but there they are (at least the clarinets) around the 9:35 mark. Huh. Now, I’m trying to figure out the woodwind to brass ratio - I just don’t get why you field any clarinets if they’re outnumbered by trumpets 4:1. Anyway, it sounded good, I think... I don’t know the music well enough to comment one way or the other. I will say that I believe that Miss Saigon is supposed to be dark, and the music captured that in places when the band stopped. However, every time they did something with their feet or swayed side-to-side, it just somehow looked chippy / cheerful when I don’t think that was what was going on musically.


Another band to post a delayed show was the Michigan Marching Band with what I believe was their Nov. 4th game versus the Golden Gophers. For their performance, the Wolverines featured students and faculty from their Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation for a Jazz show. I have to say that I really, really loved the performance this evening, and was blown away by just how clean the sound was. Many bands this year have done Jazz or big band shows, and some have made tunes like “Sing, Sing, Sing” or “A Night in Tunisia” work as big hitting, loud-sounding extravaganzas. This performance is much more in line with a traditional, laid-back Jazz sound, and despite some wonderful horn accents throughout, the whole feel was just like sitting in a dark, classy club wearing a suit and Fedora while sipping away your worries with a Gin concoction. Specific tunes included “Sunny Side of the Street”, “One O’Clock Jump”, “A Night in Tunisia”, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it Ain’t Got that Swing)”, and “Sing, Sing, Sing”. Although more complex than what most other bands in the conference performed in the past few weeks, the drill was a bit muted due to the presence of the Jazz Ensemble at mid-field. Still, this was the perfect balance of activity versus the easy-going vibe of the music. Soloists throughout were fantastic... particularly the trumpet player in “One O’Clock Jump”. I really dig this show... I’ve never seen a band this big be able to pull off the subtler side of a Jazz before, and Michigan nailed it with this halftime.

Michigan State

For the past several weeks, Michigan State has teased an African Show on their YouTube channel, but one performance was apparently rained out and they haven’t posted the complete performance for the Maryland game, yet. However, we did get a teaser from a fan, and I have to say that I’m really hoping that the full show goes up at some point. From what little we see of the drum break in here, I’m extremely intrigued - looks like some solid choreographed drill, some unique instrumentation, and some special costumed dancing from flag corp. I love it when bands take chances and step outside our normal conception of what a halftime show should be, and I suspect this show has that in droves.

Penn State

For their final home performance of the year, apparently the Blue Band lets its seniors pick portions of some of their favorite shows to repeat for halftime. Penn State opened with “The Wind and the Lion”, transitioned to “King of Swing”, and then finished with “1812 Overture”. The arrangements were definitely good and very well played by the Blue Band, but it’s kind of hard to overlook the fact that they didn’t perform any drill.

Ohio State

Ohio State performed a set of the classics in an absolute downpour. The Buckeyes opened with the finale from Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, transitioning to Dvorak’s “New World Symphony”, portions of Beethoven’s 5th and 9th Symphonies, and concluding with Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony Finale. As much as the crowd normally loves OSU’s tendency to create characters as part of their drill, I’m quite happy that they went a bit more abstract with their designs this week (albeit we still had a great conductor in the first tune and a held violin for much of Beethoven), which I think worked particularly well with some of the block pass-through drill. Maybe it is just because of the pieces that were being selected, but I think that this is perhaps the best sound that the Buckeyes have generated all year. That said, if you’re a symphony addict like me, it’s sometimes hard to have 20-40 minutes of nuanced development of a Beethoven symphony distilled down to a two-minute highlight reel - the Beethoven arrangements in particular just felt a bit too forced and I would have rather had longer segments of fewer composers. Still, the sound was fantastic and the drill was impressive. Overall, another outstanding show by what is consistently one of the best bands in the conference.


Visiting Ohio State this past week were the Marching Illini, who performed their “Pirates of the Caribbean” show for the third time plus their Three-in-One routine. I’m not going to say a lot about the performance as I’ve already reviewed it twice, but it is a nice little segment and I still believe the shift to the first ship is some very impressive drill and still one of the best visual hooks I’ve seen all year.

Everyone Else

Aside from some of the missing drill already mentioned above, I know that Northwestern closed with a repeat of their Gerschwin show plus the traditional last-game rendition of “March of the Steelman”. Iowa has gone AWOL online for much of the season. Maryland and Nebraska were on the road, but we are still missing video on the vast bulk of the shows that they performed this year. Everyone else was off for the week.


Bowls are a blast. Indiana was down for some delayed Motown. Wisconsin ... something... something [not politically correct]... prostitute. Michigan jazzed things up (delayed). We got a taste of Africa from MSU, but are hoping for more. Penn State played their senior favorites. OSU showed us why the Buckeye Band is a classic. Illinois looked prepared to take to the high seas... which would have been necessary if the rain had continued just a bit longer.

I’ll leave you with some (dated) performance by Michigan’s Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation...