Get the women and children off the streets! The owls and the Irish too! The Stanford Band is here for the Orange Bowl, and South Florida may never be the same.
Yeah, yeah, you think that if Miami survived Al Capone, Hurricane Andrew and Scarface, it will have no trouble with a mere college marching band. But you don’t know these guys. They’re the most banned band of all time.
Notre Dame kicked them off its campus forever. Oregon — not the university, but the entire state — put a bounty on them. In Arkansas, they dropped their pants not just during a halftime show, but a nationally televised halftime show.
Their performances have enraged Irish, Mormons, Catholics and even Ann Landers, who once wrote an entire advice column demanding that Stanford suspend them. O.J. Simpson no doubt had something much more stern in mind after they played She’s Not There on the courthouse steps during his trial. (To be fair, that was quite mild compared to their halftime show the next time Stanford’s football team played Simpson’s alma mater, the University of Southern California. It included a
white van covered with bloody handprints driving around the field.)
And a lot of their own school’s fans wanted to collectively strangle them after they poured onto the field during the final seconds of a 1982 game against arch-rival University of California. Cal took advantage of the chaos to run a kickoff around, through and ultimately over the band members for a game-winning touchdown.
“They do some marginally tasteless things,” says Donald Kennedy, a Stanford environmental-science professor who spent a considerable chunk of his 12 years as the university’s president apologizing for various band atrocities. “But every once in a while, they also made me crack up on the floor laughing. . . . On balance, I think their, ummm, contrasting style will be of interest in the Orange Bowl.”
Band members, with an air of injured innocence that’s extremely familiar to Kennedy and other Stanford administrators, say they cannot imagine why anybody would be worried about what they might do during their Orange Bowl shows. “We’re not planning anything potentially vitriolic or harsh,” says band manager Ben Lasley, 23, a senior from Connecticut.
Of course, the band’s definition of “vitriolic and harsh” might be a tad on the flexible side. Its members were pretty surprised in 1986 when they got into trouble for a halftime show in which they did formations of jumbled words — coincidentally, all with four letters — and challenged the crowd to unscramble them. The band was shocked, shocked that anybody thought H-S-I-T would unscramble to anything but THIS.
“The band’s first line of defense is that anytime there’s a dirty double-entendre, we meant the clean version,” says Jerry Coleman, a San Francisco assistant district attorney who from 1972 to 1974 helped write halftime shows as a member of the band’s creative braintrust, the Stanford Marching Unit Thinkers (SMUT).
Coleman’s proudest SMUT moment was a 1973 salute to Stanford kicker Rod Garcia, who had just set an NCAA record with a 59-yard field goal. On the field at the next game, the band spelled out 59-YARD ROD, then played Ringo Starr’s It Don’t Come Easy. “If some people, or Stanford administrators, thought there was something phallic about that, well, I just don’t know how they got an idea like that,” Coleman says.
The public wrath over that show was fairly subdued compared to some of SMUT’s other halftime barbarities:
• In 1990, as a controversy over an endangered species of spotted owls raged in the Pacific Northwest between environmentalists and the logging industry, the band did a show on the subject during a game at the University of Oregon. While the band formed a chain saw on the field, the announcer jibed: “Oregon old growth timber — a place where one can find peace, serenity and the dainty hoot-hoot of the spotted owl. Ah well, two out of three ain’t bad.” Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, taking a kingly view of his powers, promptly ordered the band never to return to the state — a ban that lasted 11 years.
• A year later, Notre Dame barred the band from its campus after a show in which the drum major wore a nun’s habit and used a cross as a baton. Notre Dame’s fans were even more direct: A woman came charging out of the stands and tried to wrestle the cross away while screaming, “You’re going to hell!”
• Believe it or not, relations between Notre Dame and the band got even worse in 1997 after a halftime show at Stanford titled, These Irish, Why Must They Fight? that included among other things a joke about the mid-19th century Irish Potato Famine. That was the show that triggered a ranting column by the late Ann Landers, calling the band “incredibly tasteless.”
• Mormons got their turn in the band’s musical gunsights during a 2004 game with BYU when all five of the Stanford Dollies, the band’s female dancers, put on bridal veils and “married” a band member during the halftime show as the announcer spoke warmly of “wedded bliss between a man and a woman . . . and a woman . . . and a woman . . .”
• Last year, during a visit to USC, the band offered a mocking tribute to one of the school’s alumni: jailed Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis. “It takes a special kind of man to be wanted for sexual harassment, drug trafficking, tax evasion, prostitution, child abuse and disruptive flatulence,” the band announcer intoned, as a hail of trash and debris flew from the stand on the USC side of the field.
DAY OF IGNOMY
Band members take their notoriety in stride. Gary Tyrell, the trombonist who has been seen countless times on television and YouTube being flattened by the burly Cal ball carrier at the end of that 1982 kickoff, admits that the band got crazed hate mail for months after the game.
“That was pretty devastating,” says Tyrell, now CEO of a San Francisco-area venture capital firm. “On the other hand, we got a lot of nice donations from Cal alumni.”
Though it’s the halftime shows that have made the band famous (or, if you prefer, infamous), practically everything it does seizes attention, right down to the way it marches. Or, more correctly, doesn’t.
Military precision is not a phrase often used in connection with the Stanford Band. In parades, its members “walk rhythmically;” when switching from one formation to another on the field, they skitter around like cockroaches fleeing an overhead light, a technique known as scattering. “The way they explained it to me when I joined was just, `Scatter far and wide, go as far out of your way as possible, go crazy!’ ” recalls Ruth Marks, a sophomore saxophonist from Milwaukee. “There’s not much you can do wrong with a scatter.”
Then there’s the band’s jitterbugging mascot, the Stanford Tree. After Stanford administrators outlawed the school’s old Indian mascot on political correctness grounds in 1972, the band did a halftime show offering its own tongue-deeply-in-cheek suggestions, including the French Fries, the Steaming Manhole Covers and, in a nod to the university’s railroad-magnate founder Leland Stanford, the Robber Barons.
The Tree — a reference to the redwood tree that appears on Stanford’s official seal — quickly won a popular following among both students and law-enforcement officers, who’ve busted it for drunkenness, brawling with other mascots, trespassing at the Alamo and unauthorized dancing during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
“Sure, I had a few scandals,” says Erin Lashnits, a former Tree (she’s now a 27-year-old veterinary student at Cornell) who was kicked off the court at a 2006 basketball game after cops spotted her pounding vodka shots inside her leafy costume. “What good Tree doesn’t?”
MARCH INTO LUNACY
If this relentless weirdness, not to mention outlawry, seems out of place from a school usually known as the Harvard of the West (except on the Palo Alto, Calif. campus, where Harvard is referred to as the Stanford of the East), some people think it’s just the opposite: that the band is putting its own spin on the old maxim about all work and no play.
“The band is an outlet,” says Greg Louden, an Alameda, Calif., visual designer who was drum major for the infamous spotted-owl halftime show. “People have to find a way to be crazy after studying all week. That’s also why the band scatters instead of marches. Stanford students don’t have hours and hours to spend practicing marching in a straight line.”
The band’s march — er, rhythmic walk — into lunacy started in 1963, when members staged a two-football-game strike against what they viewed as excessive lameness. Stanford administrators capitulated: Prussian military-surplus costumes were ditched for snazzy red blazers, the John Phillip Sousa songbook for rock ‘n’ roll, and decorum for anarchy.
Marks, the saxophonist, discovered just how venerable the band’s tradition of outraging innocent onlookers was last year when she was working in a campus library and discovered deep in the stacks a box of correspondence between past Stanford presidents and various offendees.
“It turns out we’ve been making people furious for more than 40 years,” she says proudly. “Some of the worst complaints were about that  halftime show in Arkansas where the whole band dropped its pants on the field. They were wearing bathing suits underneath, but, still, it was Arkansas.” (The letters also gave Marks some insight into her own parents’ reaction when she joined the band: “They’re both Stanford graduates, and when I told them, there was like this lonnnng silence.”)
South Florida is not exactly Arkansas, but cautious Orange Bowl organizers have reduced the opportunity for indignity by keeping both college bands off the field at halftime; they’ll be restricted to brief, six-minute pregame shows.
Stanford Band bosses are keeping mum about their plans, saying only that the show is titled Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami. Look out, LeBron.