Dr. Scott Jones is intimately familiar with the field at Ohio Stadium, home of the Ohio State Buckeyes. He never suited up for the football team, though. Instead, he starred with the band. And while Buckeyes fortunes on the football field have risen and fallen over the years, the marching has long been known as The Best Damn Band In The Land.
Jones is now the associate director of university bands at Ohio State and one of the members of the leadership group for the OSU Marching Band. He’s also an OSU alum who spent two years playing trombone in the marching band during a terrific run for Buckeye football. During his freshman year, the Buckeyes reached the Rose Bowl. “That was a pretty wonderful way to spend New Years Day that year,” he says with a laugh. “The game did not go as we would have liked -- USC ended up winning -- but it was delightful to spend that time.”
While the football players at OSU certainly feel the pressure, the Band practices just as hard. Every member auditions every year, and with 400 prospective performers for 225 spots, it’s not unheard of for fifth-year members to get cut.
The band learns new music starting in the spring, and many members travel from out of state for optional summer practices. The band drills footwork all season long, putting together intricate formations for each and every home game. Buckeye QBs practice their three- or five-step drops, while sousaphone players lug their instruments around while hitting precise yard marks on the field.
In fact, the OSU Marching Band predates Buckeye football by more than a decade. While the Buckeyes first took the field in 1890, the band formed in 1878, just a few years after Ohio State University was established. What was originally a 12-piece fife-and-drum corps used for military events grew over the years into what might be the most famous college marching band in the country.
As well as the Buckeyes played last year during a 12-2 campaign, the band had them beat on video highlights. During halftime of the Buckeyes’ homecoming date against Iowa, the band performed a tribute to Michael Jackson that has racked up more than 10 million views on YouTube.
Fans were treated to a moon-walking stick figure of the late King of Pop, brought to life thanks to each band member’s precise timing and movement. Besides MJ, the band has covered everything from the Gettysburg Address to classic arcade games to Hollywood blockbusters.
The band has always been known for its formations: the “Script Ohio” is one of the great traditions in college football, where the band spells out “Ohio” in cursive letters and lets a lucky sousaphone player or special guest dot the “i” in the word. The ban first performed Script Ohio back in 1936, and it remains a fan favorite.
The digital age gives the band more options. Drill designers now use drill writing software to conceive and sketch out complicated formations, which are shared to each band member’s iPad. Sketches used to be hand-drawn but can now be designed and refined in record time. It can take as little as two weeks from conception to execution during a halftime performance.
Spectacles like the Michael Jackson tribute, in which images move and dance on the field, are more possible thanks to these technological advancements. The band calls them “picture shows,” and the ones that move are “animated” like a cartoon. What may look like a jumble of trombones and drums shuffling around to fans at field level resembles the world’s largest GIF to bleacher dwellers, thanks to Ohio Stadium’s steeply pitched grandstand.
A lot about Ohio Stadium makes the experience special, says Jones. Not just the building’s design, but the traditions of OSU football itself. “There is really something about coming into Ohio Stadium, with 100,000-plus people on their feet, clapping and cheering, for the very first time,” says Jones. “The crowd sound is just deafening, literally, where it’s hard to hear yourself play, let alone [hear] the people around you.”
But every OSU student knows that one game is louder than any other. Jones begins to laugh, and says, “It’s only topped by coming into Ohio Stadium for a home game against Michigan!”