Forget the Pac-12, Stanford's band is more interesting than the football team
Chaos – that’s the narrative we’ve been given for this college football season.
Yet, college football isn’t all that chaotic – it’s regimented, intensely disciplined and rule-oriented. Even when you consider the impassioned rivalries and drunken fan antics, most of the “chaos” of college football is pretty tame. If you really want some chaos, look to Stanford’s sideline. There, you’ll find the most chaotic part of college football: the Stanford band.
This isn’t your grandma’s marching band. Its members don’t bother competing in formal competitions, because it’s not like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles entered formal competitions. There’s nothing formal about Stanford’s band. It doesn’t make traditional formations or follow a dress code. In college football’s codified white-sheep world, the band isn’t just a black sheep, it's a tie-dye sheep (that’s an expression, right?).
“There’s nothing quite like getting booed by [87,000] people at homecoming game,” 2012 drum major Garrett Schlesinger said. Drum majors are the band’s conductors and are accountable for the hundreds of band members, who can get as rowdy as the fans. The boos he’s alluding to came during Stanford’s upset of USC in 2009. During the game, the band gave a mocking tribute to Girls Gone Wild owner Joe Francis, in which the performers read from Francis’ Wikipedia page. A USC Alumnus, Francis had just pled guilty to misdemeanor accounts of false return and bribery (some NSFW jeers from the crowd in the video below).
Taking down creeps might not be in most marching bands’ repertoires, but it’s par for the course for Stanford. And the barbs aren’t reserved for criminals; the band also has mocked Mormons in Utah and Catholics in South Bend. Stanford is like the South Park of college football, mocking everyone equally.
“We were completely drowned out by boos,” Schlesinger said about the USC game. “And then ultimately winning the game, 55-21, which at the time was the biggest margin anybody had ever seen in the L.A. Coliseum. Having that happen at homecoming and seeing their stands empty out starting at the beginning of the fourth quarter. It was a pretty big moral victory.
“We definitely infuriated tons of people that day, so that was pretty special,” he added. Sadistic? Maybe. But the raining hatred is only affirmation that they’ve won.
“That was kind of an awesome experience. There’s nothing quite like getting booed by like 90,000,” the 2011 drum major Joe Adelson said. “I love it. It’s the best.”
The band is used to it by now. It spares no one, which is probably why it is always getting into trouble – and sometimes, suspended.
In 1990, it mocked Oregon’s logging industry, which was invading the spotted owl’s habitat, by changing its formation from OWL to AWOL – which, in retrospect, seems pretty tame. Afterwards, Governor Neil Goldschmidt banned the band from returning to Oregon for 11 years.
It’s understandable the band takes logging personally. Its most important member and mascot is the Tree. Becoming the Tree is a grueling process, which is like joining the nerdiest and most creative frat.
Prospective Trees must come up with a “bribe” -- or a demonstration designed to impress the band -- that sets him or her apart from the rest. People have eaten live scorpions and, rumor has it, sky-dived into the stadium. One kid ran the gauntlet, allowing frat brothers to smash light bulbs across his chest. Of course, the rules state that you can’t get arrested or go to the hospital during the bribe. So while that kid was insane, he was not selected to be Tree. But kudos for dedication?
Jonathan Strange, one of the more infamous Trees, has been in ESPN commercials and local news. His bribe was as strange as his name: “I learned how to cut, weld, and bend metal with a friend of mine and made a bowling ball cage that fits a person, strapped myself in and had old Trees roll me down a hill into empty kegs like bowling pins,” Strange said.
Once he became the Tree, Strange had a run-in with Joe Biden at a basketball game. “He said something about being impressed with my ‘west coast dance moves’ whatever that means.”
The healthy, misinterpreted, and at times Martian competition to be the Tree is born out of love for the band. Its members love music and will play for anybody. They tore up South Beach with their tambourines and gongs prior to the Orange Bowl. They serenaded random truckers at a truck stop between Stanford and Arizona at 4 a.m.
“When you’re conducting the band you’re having the most fun of your life,” Adelson said. “We just try to rock out as hard we can.”
Even Lou Holtz managed to spit out ringing endorsement for the band, saying that it outworked both Football teams in Stanford’s 40-12 rout of Virginia Tech in the 2011 Orange Bowl.
“That was an incredibly proud moment. It was an amazing way to go out,” Schlesinger said of Holtz’s comments. The Orange Bowl was Schlesinger’s final performance as Drum Major. “Saying that we were the hardest players there was just amazing.”
Their record isn’t perfect. In fact, a count of public urination back in 1986 seems to mark a point in time when the Stanford Band went Lord of the Flies on college football. They are decent arsonists, too. Once, they built a 10-foot long Catfish named Brundhilde, then gave it a Viking burial by burning it on Lake Lagunita, a small lake on Stanford campus. Only Brunhilde was injured during the fire.
Recently, the school has attempted to water down the band’s activity. A school committee of PR officials meets with the band before every football game. “They basically go through with a fine-toothed comb whether every single joke will offend some group of people,” Adelson said. After initial correspondence, those PR officials declined to offer comment.
Fortunately, the band isn’t in any danger of losing its spirit or reputation. Recently, it was hit with accusations that it tried to sneak alcohol into a Stanford Basketball game by means of tubas. While that is the outside-the-box and inside-the-tuba kind of thinking that suits the band, those allegations were false. One good thing came of it, however. The Stanford cowbell player became famous – Christopher Walken slept well that night.
Stanford’s band embodies sporting spirit in all of its chaotic nonsense. And taken with the right sense of humor,it is great for NCAA football and basketball. The world of sports can take itself too seriously. Scholarships are on the line, people have worked their whole lives for these careers, and sports bring in untold amounts of cash to the schools. But the bottom line is that sports are fun. We should all be thankful to Stanford’s band for reminding us of that fact. Its humor and passion is undeniable. Its mischief is highbrow. And its jokes are as good as its music.