Elmore native Jon Waters, interim director of the Ohio State Marching Band, directs the legendary 225-member band. He says he still gets chills when conducting the fight song.
special to the blade/ed and karen crockett
ELMORE, Ohio -- Father and son settled into their living room for another fall afternoon of Ohio State football when suddenly, Jon Waters charted his future.
The eighth grader pointed to the television. A member of the OSU Marching Band was high-stepping with his sousaphone to perform the school's most sacred game-day tradition: Dotting the "i" in "Script Ohio."
"I'm going to do that," he said, recalled his father, John Waters.
The younger Waters, who had recently traded his guitar for a saxophone so he could march at Woodmore High, then excitedly told the school's band director.
There was just one problem.
"You play the wrong instrument," Woodmore band director Howard Williams told him.
For the then-student, now the new director of the Ohio State band, a lifetime pursuit was born.
His dream would not budge. Mr. Waters immediately switched to the sousaphone and, with the pomp and spectacle of Saturdays at Ohio Stadium in mind, a student who did not strike Mr. Williams as motivated on the saxophone became singularly focused. No matter that he struggled to master the hulking instrument. Or that he went to Ohio State to become a lawyer and was cut from the band as a freshman.
Mr. Waters, now 36, not only dotted the "i" before the OSU-Michigan game in 1998, but he is now the latest steward of the tradition.
When the Buckeyes open the football season, coach Urban Meyer will not be the only new guy in charge at Ohio Stadium. Mr. Waters is the interim leader of the 225-member all-brass and percussion unit widely known as The Best Damn Band in the Land and the top candidate to remain just the ninth director in 135 years.
He will be the interim director for one season until OSU officials choose a permanent director, for which Mr. Waters is a leading contender.
"Hopefully, we'll spell 'Ohio' right, and all will be good," Mr. Waters said, laughing.
Similar to church
Succeeding Jon Woods, who retired this spring after 25 years as director, the Woodmore High graduate will oversee an institution with few rivals in college athletics.
Mr. Waters likened an Ohio State game to attending church, where each home Saturday the same rites and hymns galvanize the congregation of more than 100,000. Fans arrive early for the ramp entrance and march down the field, await the playing of "Hang on Sloopy" before the fourth quarter, and stay late for the postgame rendition of "Carmen Ohio," the school's alma mater.
During the spring football game, Mr. Meyer, an Ashtabula native, said he grew emotional as the band launched into "Sloopy" -- the rock anthem that has been a staple of the OSU soundtrack since 1965.
"He just stopped and looked at the band," Mr. Waters said. "I remember that, thinking, 'Gosh, our coach certainly has got other things to think about, but there he is, listening to the band.' "
Mr. Woods said his former understudy is the ideal man to lead the band into a new era -- an indefatigable musician and teacher who is both faithful to the past and ahead of the times. For example, in Mr. Waters' 10 years as assistant director, he wrote shows based on the television show Glee and the music of Elvis Presley, with an impersonator of the rocker dotting the "i" in "Script Elvis."
"He's perfect for the job," Mr. Woods said. "I cannot think of a better person to fill this position."
Mr. Waters called the post "very humbling."
"Whether you're the director for a year or 30 years, we're all stewards of a tradition and a tradition of excellence," he said.
For Mr. Waters, his perch atop the conductor's ladder continues a rise built on sheer will.
Growing up in Elmore, a village of 1,400 about 20 miles southeast of Toledo, the stars did not align to groom a world-class instrumentalist. His father was admittedly left-brained, a chief financial officer for a chemical company in Maumee. And the younger Waters, though interested in music, hardly displayed a gift on his first instrument.
"I didn't think he would work out on the saxophone," said Mr. Williams, who retired from Woodmore in 2008.
But Mr. Waters found a home on the sousaphone.
"When he decided he wanted to do the marching band down there, it was different," Mr. Williams said. "I didn't know Jon well enough at the time to know what was inside of him."
Mr. Waters pored himself into Friday nights at Woodmore so he could play on Saturdays in Columbus. His dream was fixed, which meant he was devastated but not deterred after being among the more than 200 band hopefuls cut as a freshman at OSU. Mr. Waters redoubled his efforts. Mr. Williams would spot his former student "literally running" about with the 20-plus-pound instrument as a training drill.
Mr. Waters made the band as a sophomore and, as a senior, the boy from Elmore indeed earned the unit's highest honor. His father and Mr. Williams were among the 94,339 fans at the Horseshoe in November, 1998, to watch him dot the "i" before Ohio State played Michigan.
"What a thrill," Mr. Williams said. "Here's a story that shows if you want something bad enough and work hard enough, you can get it."
Mr. Woods asked Mr. Waters, who switched his major to music as a junior, to stay around as a graduate assistant and promoted him to assistant director in 2002.
One measure of Mr. Waters' new responsibility came when Coach Meyer called in January to set up a meeting. The new coach has frequently spoken of the importance of the band, continuing a bond forged by former coaches from Woody Hayes -- who conferred the pseudo-official "TBDBITL" handle on the marchers -- to Earle Bruce to Jim Tressel. The current coach showed Mr. Waters a photo of him and his late father, Bud, taken during the 1987 Ohio State-Michigan game in Ann Arbor. Mr. Meyer was a graduate assistant under Coach Bruce.
"He brought his father out onto the field from the stands," Mr. Waters said.
"And there's a great picture of him and his dad holding up the number four to signal the band to play 'Hang on Sloopy,' before the fourth quarter."
The first-year coach and the first-year band director spoke for an hour.
"[Coach Meyer] said, 'We're all in the same entertainment business. I'm just doing it with football players and you're doing it with the band,' " Mr. Waters said. "We're creating an experience and an event at Ohio State for a lot of people. So Urban Meyer gets that. He embraces that tradition."
Now, it is Mr. Waters' to uphold -- and enlarge.
"One philosophy that is going to guide me as I take the reins is tradition through innovation," Mr. Waters said. "I told our students, 'Script Ohio,' in 1936 was innovated. The ramp entrance was a new thing in 1928. 'Hang on Sloopy,' in 1965 was a new thing.
"Those have since become great traditions. So the Ohio State band, even though it is bound by tradition, has always been a national leader in terms of being innovative."
The thrill never leaves
One thing that will not change: the chills Mr. Waters has experienced every game day for the past decade.
"It happens every time I step in front of the band and conduct the fight song, even though I've conducted it probably thousands of times in my 10 years as an assistant," Mr. Waters said. "Every time you get in front of that group and hear that sound and see the dedication in their eyes, I know that these students that I have today are mirror images of who I used to be. I used to be one of them, with the same dreams and aspirations."
Contact David Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.