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Should This Band Be Banned? Ask a Doting Fan--or a Scandalized Foe

Sports: Stanford's 'Junior University Marching Band' doesn't march, but it does fuel controversy. Some call its routines hilarious; others say they're offensive.

October 05, 1997|JIMMY BOEGLE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

STANFORD — When the Stanford University football team takes the field this fall, fans may have to await halftime for the real action: Is this Stanford band, or Stanford banned? Just watch.

The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band, oh so formally titled, is anything but. In fact, band members are so informal that they don't even march. But they do just about everything else on the field--including garner suspensions.

Over the decades, they've wooed fans as loyal to them as to the team. They've also upset alumni and opponents. Here's how:

In 1982, during the big game against UC Berkeley, the band headed onto the field early. Unflappable, the ball carrier for California raced though their ranks, returning a kickoff for the winning score. In 1986, band members urinated on a field (but in a corner) and, during show formations, spelled four-letter words (but jumbled).

And witness 1994. Just when fans feared that the band had turned tame, dozens of band members headed to the O.J. Simpson trial. Outside the courthouse in Los Angeles, they played "White Punks on Dope" and forced lawyers leaving the building to walk through their parallel lines.

Many folks dote on the band's crazies. "I love them. I think they're absolutely spectacular," says Ted Leland, athletic director at Stanford. "They do one or two things a year to cause us problems, but they work really hard for the school and its teams."

Even though they call themselves a marching band, they don't march. They actually are a "scatter band," avoiding traditional songs and marches during a field show and, instead, running from formation to formation with whoops and hollers.

The Stanford band is one of a select group that includes several Ivy League schools. "At schools like Stanford or the Ivies, there's a bit more pressure as a student," says band manager Scott "Fabio" McKisson. "We work hard, but we play hard too. The band provides an outlet."

Their field shows are often laced with satirical and political humor. In 1990, the band tackled the spotted owl--and the question of its habitat that pitted environmentalists in the Northwest against those working in the timber industry. During halftime at the University of Oregon in Eugene, the band formed the word "OWL" that, by mid-song, evolved to "AWOL."

"Mr. Spotted Owl!" the narrator chimed. "Your environment has been destroyed, your home is now a roll of Brawny, and your family has flown the coop. What are you going to do? Me, I'm going to Disneyland."

Oregon asked the band not to return the following year, citing some damage to the stadium. "They got booed off the field," recalls Bill Byrne, Nebraska's athletic director, who held the same position at Oregon in 1990. "I know our fans were offended."

The band might also gibe an opposing school. In 1986, during halftime with USC, the band in formation collapsed a Trojan helmet while playing, "If I Only Had a Brain." Then the narrator joked: "Stanford University is nationally ranked; USC is naturally rank." Now USC fans turn their backs whenever the band is on the field.

Another incident came during a 1991 game against Notre Dame at Stanford. After dressing as a Hasidic Jew for the pregame show, drum major Eric Selvik donned the habit of a nun for halftime and led the band with a cross. Catholics in the audience were livid, and one woman pummeled Selvik, telling him he was going to hell.

The band is still barred from Notre Dame stadium. Dennis Moore, a spokesman there, cites letters from fans who found the show offensive. "And frankly," he adds, "so did we."

Even Stanford alumni criticize the band.

"Alumni tend to forget what they were like in school," says Arthur Barnes, who just stepped down after 34 years as the band's director. "As they get out in the big world and become businessmen and probably Republicans, they become more conservative."

At first, interim band director Steve Anderson, from nearby Woodside High School, considered his task of representing the band to the faculty as daunting. "I was a little worried initially, but not anymore," he says. "I have so much respect for these crazy nuts."

The band's wild reputation generates "urban myths," many tied to travel to away games. One describes how a commercial airline banned members who moved, en masse, from the back of the airline to the front--just to see what would happen.

"That never happened," insists Frank Guinan, a graduate student in computer science. "When people hear about it, it's always a different airline. And the old[-timers] all say it never happened."

Nebraska's Byrne recalls another plane ride to the Pac-10 basketball championships. "Somehow they took seat belts off some of the seats and did just like the stewardesses during the little demonstration before takeoff," he says. "It was hilarious."

But is this all history? "The band is much more conservative than it used to be," Barnes says. "But it flares up occasionally, sometimes inadvertently."

To avoid surprises, Stanford's athletic department now approves all shows. But director Leland still expects the unexpected. "Oh, I am sure they'll do something this year."

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