Among the many pros and cons of spending your life as a sportswriter, there’s this. . .
You really need to like school fight songs. Because you’re going to hear them over and over. When you’re trying to write. When you’re trying to think. When you’re trying to. . . do just about anything.
Lucky for me, I like school fight songs.
I was in the band in high school. The Marching Warriors of Deerfield High School. Might have been first trombone, maybe even vice-president of the band. The band director, Mr. Spriester, might have enjoyed making me, a lefty, conduct righthanded, when he and the trumpet-playing band president needed a break.
Band was not a thing for me in college, though. In college, they practiced way too much, although their drinking habits were impressive.
The point is, I still have opinions about fight songs. And the truth is, they’re all pretty good in the Big Ten.
Which is fortunate. Because they are played early and often. Ridiculously often.
And so, today’s question is: If you have to listen to fight songs too many times, which ones would you rather hear too many times?
I could riff on the ultimate dream/nightmare fight-song matchup—North Carolina and Oklahoma, two songs that are impossible to get out of your head. I could wonder why Cal and UCLA seem to have the same fight song, which, fortunately, is a pretty good one.
But I am going to confine this to Big Ten fight songs. Because those are the ones I have heard too often the most times.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
THE SUBSEQUENT FOUR
For people who are fans of tradition and mathematically correct conference names, the Big Ten can be divided into two divisions: The Original Ten and the Subsequent Four.
I am going to take on the Four New Guys first. Because I have heard their songs too many times the least.
I’m not even all that familiar with the Penn State song. The real fight-song brainwashing threat comes at basketball games, and basketball is not a Penn State thing.
But my impresson of their song is that it sounds like something from a circus—when they transition from the clowns to the sequined trapeze artists. That’s not a bad thing, although I don’t understand the tempo change(s).
The Rutgers song also has a circus-like quality. It would work when the ringmaster brings out the lions and tigers.
I would say that circus imagery is an Eastern thing, except that the Nebraska song makes me think of an epic circus parade. I would love to hear the Cornhusker song on a calliope.
The final member of the subsequent four, Maryland, runs a different route in the fight-song world. It’s more like something from a Hollywood sound track, when Hollywood was Hollywood.
If I had to listen to one of those four too much, my first impulse would be to go for the Maryland song. On the other hand, that one sticks without much prodding.
I guess it depends on how you feel about circuses.
And now, for the original, accept-no-substitutes Big Ten. . .
The Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue fight songs all have an uplifting, cartoon-like, caffeinated-mascot feel to them.
As I mentioned, hearing fight songs too many times is more of a basketball thing—due to confined space and abundant scoring. And so, the Sparty song makes me think of a manic Tom Izzo, alternately ecstatic and about to blow a gasket. The Purdue song brings up an image of an outraged, incredulous Gene Keady, with smoke coming out of his ears.
I could say the same for Fran McCaffery, who manages to combine professorial with erupting volcano. Except that the Iowa song makes me think of the pre-Fran-McCaffery era, when Iowa was struggling so much it came up with a $1 hot dog night to lure fans to an Illinois game. And the Hawkeyes, who had abandoned the pre-game media meal, gave each media member a $10 food voucher.
Try doing that math without a calculator or smartphone.
If I had to listen to one of these three too often, I’d go with the Michigan State song. Because Izzo is such a good guy and good coach.
What links the next four schools is that they all have big, grand fight songs that fit their Midwestern turf perfectly. I’m guessing that the songs of Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin are recognized beyond their fan bases more often than most college fight songs.
Indiana has that upbeat frenzy with an underlying warmth, a nice counterpoint to Bob Knight’s dementor demeanor. Illinois’ song, NCAA-permitting, also has a majesty to it, right out of a cowboys-and-Indians movie.
The Minnesota Rouser is a classic that conjures the early days of college football. You may not think you know it, but if you heard it, I’m guessing you would realize that you do.
It’s almost impossible for me to be objective about On, Wisconsin. I’m guessing it’s the best-known Big Ten song, save for Michigan's. On, Wisconsin is a classic march. Very clean and very straight forward. It doesn't really need the harmony riffs that the Badger band inserts. It’s no wonder John Philip Sousa loved it.
I like all four of these songs in different ways, although the Indiana one can become grating, and the Illini song tends to get monotonous. But that might be because I’ve heard those two songs so many times.
On, Wisconsin is special because it’s, you know, the alma mater.
When I wrote a song for the Chicago Sun-Times softball team, It was, of course, to the tune of On, Wisconsin. The lyrics were outrageously off-color; I was young. Suffice to say, our leader, Mike Royko, loved it.
Being objective, though, I guess I’d opt for hearing too much of The Minnesota Rouser. Very upbeat. Very traditional. It has a Victors-like foundation, without all of the Michigan baggage that people either love or hate.
I have to admit, I don’t have a full grasp of Go U Northwestern. It’s not a bad song. It obviously has excellent marching-band roots that go back to college football in the days of flasks and raccoon coats.
But here’s the deal with the Northwestern song: For some reason, it seems very derivative of On Wisconsin. The refrains are similar. It has a U Rah Rah. And most importantly, if a waiter were carrying the notes to On Wisconsin on a tray and tripped, I can see where On Wisconsin could become Go U Northwestern when he picked them up and put them back on the tray.
That’s sort of true of a ton of college fight songs. But I’m more aware of it here, having listened to both songs far too many times.
That said, it should make sense that Northwestern, the only private school in the Big Ten, should have a unique fight song. Even if it is derivative.
BO AND WOODY
And has so often happened in the Big Ten, that leaves Michigan and Ohio State as the last two standing.
I’m thinking that many college football fans are familiar with The Victors. Love it or hate it, the Michigan classic is in the discussion for most recognized college fight song in the land, and maybe the best, along with the Notre Dame and USC songs—or maybe just the Notre Dame song.
I’m OK with The Victors. It’s oh-so-redundant to hear it over and over, but that’s the point of college fight songs. Especially songs at traditional powers that are in the spotlight over and over.
If I had to pick the most under-rated fight songs of the Big Ten, though, I’d go with The Minnesota Rouser and Ohio State’s Across the Field.
Where many outsiders know Michigan’s immodest Hail to the Victors, I’m guessing that far fewer know the Ohio State song.
That’s because while the Michigan lyrics are indelible, the Ohio State lyrics are mundane, which is the case with most college fight songs. And because Ohio State, which essentially has two fight songs, gives Battle Cry top status over Across the Field.
As far as I'm concerned, that's a miscall. The heart of Battle Cry is solid, but it takes too long to get there. Across the Field is a classic musically right from the get-go. It’s catchy, but it’s also grand in a way that many catchy fight songs are not. It has just enough melodic changes to avoid monotony.
I guess what I’m saying is, if I had to listen to one fight song too many times—and I have listened to all of the Original Ten too many times—I’d go with Across the Field.
First runner-up would be The Victors, in a close call over Minnesota Rouser.
It’s difficult to pass on the fraternal twins, On Wisconsin and Go U Northwestern. My two alma maters rank high, but I’m trying to be unbiased here.
And the truth is, I not only would understand if any alum embraced their fight song above all others. I would expect that.
It’s very difficult to be objective in an arena that is so decidedly biased.
If you’d like to hear for yourself, pop over to Youtube and type in (Your School Here) Fight Song.[/membership]