Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The other champions on the BCS field

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:21 AM EST, Sun January 5, 2014
The Auburn Tigers marching band performs in Arizona.
The Auburn Tigers marching band performs in Arizona.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two other teams will take the field at Monday's college football championship game
  • Bob Greene writes that it's a big evening for the Auburn, Florida State marching bands
  • Greene: They likely won't be featured on TV, but their hard work deserves praise

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- It's the biggest stage in the world of college football.

The talented students from Florida State and Auburn who charge onto the field Monday night in Pasadena, California, will know that nothing in their lives may ever top this feeling. For the great majority of the seniors who won't go on to play professionally, this will be the last time in uniform.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

I'm not referring to the football players. The Florida State Seminoles and the Auburn Tigers will be competing for the national championship, and their head coaches, Jimbo Fisher and Gus Malzahn, have been getting them ready for the game.

But there are two other groups of students from those schools who also will step onto the bright green floor of the Rose Bowl on Monday night. Those squads are even larger in number than the football teams, and, although they draw considerably less national attention, they have been preparing just as diligently.

"It starts with practices in the heat of the Alabama summer," said Corey Spurlin, associate professor of music at Auburn and director of the 380-member Auburn University Marching Band.

"Just like the football players, our musicians are at the very peak of their abilities," said Patrick Dunnigan, professor of music at Florida State University and director of bands, including the 400-member Marching Chiefs.

With kickoff approaching, I got in touch with Spurlin and Dunnigan because the months of work put in by marching band members at schools across the country often gets overlooked. They are a major part of the pageantry of college football, but in recent decades the television networks have all but ignored them most of the time. If the performance of the marching bands at college games each Saturday gets a few seconds on the TV broadcasts, they count themselves lucky.

"Generally, if we do get airtime, it's very brief, minimal," said Auburn's Spurlin. "We'd love to be able to share what we do with more people."

Florida State's Dunnigan said: "The kids in the band don't know any different. I grew up in a world where the halftime shows were seen on TV, but that's over."

The replacements on television have been studio shows with analysis, replays and highlights of other games; the studio shows are lucrative revenue generators, attractive for commercial sponsors, and the switch away from the field at halftime is almost instant on most telecasts.

Still, the audiences inside the stadiums are massive. Florida State's home stadium seats more than 82,000; Auburn's seats more than 87,000. The Rose Bowl, where Monday's national championship game will be played, seats more than 90,000. Few bands of any kind ever get to play in front of that many people. Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones might even be a bit envious.

The musicians, although they do their work on the same gridirons as the football players, are not recognized around campus the way the star quarterbacks or linebackers are. "With 380 musicians in the band, not many people can pick out their faces," Spurlin said.

And as far as the scholarships and perks that go with big-time college football programs: Forget it. At Florida State, Dunnigan said, not only are there no marching band scholarships, but "the student musicians pay for the work they do -- the band is a one-credit class, so they're paying tuition to be in it. We're kind of proud that the members of the band are there by choice."

At Auburn, Spurlin said, the budget that is available for the marching band's expenses goes only so far; the university provides the band's uniforms, "but the members of the band have to pay for the cleaning," and they have to get their uniforms to the laundry after the games.

The intangible rewards, however, are ample. "The individual challenge is to play the instruments as well as they can, to lock into the formations as well as they can," Dunnigan said. "The big picture is when they look at the crowd, see the fans clapping, watch the football team waving at them. The feeling is being a part of something huge." Spurlin said the friendship and the time together is something irreplaceable, something the band members will take with them for the rest of their lives.

Very few members of the marching bands go on to careers as professional musicians. "Some will go on to teach music," Spurlin said, "but for most, they bless us with their talent while they're here, and then they graduate and do something else for a living."

Dunnigan said: "I hope that, in 10 years, some who are in the band now will still play their instruments in church, or in a community musical group."

The physical challenges can be daunting: "We come onto the field in a high-step jog, with legs all the way up," Spurlin said. "They're wearing long-sleeved cadet-style uniforms, heavy hats, and carrying their instruments, and for a 1 o'clock game in Alabama, it can be 98 degrees down on the field."

Dunnigan and Spurlin both said that, each year, there are some musicians who are supremely talented, but who just can't play their instruments well while marching quickly in formation. There also are some who are brilliant at close-order drills, but whose musicianship does not match their strutting skills. The directors have to tell them that they haven't made it onto the bands.

With hundreds of band members on the field, if one musician hits a clunky note or takes a false step, the football fans up in the seats may not notice. But the other band members do, as do the band directors.

"We're all attuned to it, and we know," Dunnigan said. "The accuracy of the notes, the formations to lock into, the crescendos -- we know right away when something's off."

Spurlin said: "Our standards for ourselves are high. We teach a precise work ethic, a pride, that we hope will carry over to whatever the musicians do after they leave here."

As the seniors in both schools' bands, like the seniors on both schools' football teams, soon will do. But first there is Monday night's game. Each band has been allocated six minutes to perform before kickoff, when, as they march, they will play their schools' traditional fight songs. At halftime, each band gets eight minutes; among Auburn's selections, Spurlin said, will be music from stage shows that became popular movies. Dunnigan said that the Florida State band will also include movie music: the James Bond theme, among other songs.

And then, for the musicians whose final season this is, it will be over. "The value of all this will become more apparent to them as the years go on," Dunnigan said.

Spurlin said that when graduating band members tell him that being on the squad has been the time of their lives, he tells them he hopes that turns out not to be true.

"I thank them, but I tell them that I don't really want that for them. I tell them that I hope they will have many, many special moments after they leave college. I tell them that I hope the times of their lives -- the spine-chilling, best moments -- are still ahead of them."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT