COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s candidacy for a national title shot isn’t the only broiling college football debate these days.
ESPN recently asked viewers which group of Buckeyes were more exciting to watch: the third-ranked football team or ... the marching band?
RELATED: View the Blade Briefing
As Ohio State tears toward another unbeaten season, the 225-member all-brass and percussion ensemble known as The Best Damn Band in the Land has become a national story of its own has become a national story of its own.
Under the stewardship of 37-year-old Elmore native Jon Waters, the band’s stunning, high-tech shows — from a moonwalking tribute to Michael Jackson to a flying celebration of Hollywood — have made halftime must-see theater.
The OSU band’s salute to the King of Pop during the Iowa game Oct. 19 had 8.7 million views on YouTube while its movie show a week later — replete with Harry Potter, Superman, and a Jurassic Park T-Rex devouring a Michigan player — has pulled in 12.8 million hits. (For perspective, the primetime ABC broadcast of the Oct. 26 OSU-Penn State game averaged 4.06 million viewers.)
Media requests have come from as far as Japan and Australia, and the band has been featured live on NBC’s Today Show and in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Even the late Jackson’s mother, Katherine, is a fan, personally calling Waters to congratulate him on the show.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Waters, a 1994 Woodmore High School graduate. “Finally, I think, band is cool again. What separates us from pro football is the color and the pageantry and the marching band. That is what is special about college football. In this day and age of big-time collegiate athletics and the revenue generated by them and the big video boards and the canned music, it’s great to be able to be relevant and on the front page.”
Back home in northwest Ohio, pride for a native son only grows.
CROCKETT PHOTOGRAPHY/ED & KAREN CROCKETT Enlarge
Those who know Waters best have watched him rise from an eighth-grade saxophone player who dreamed of dotting the “i” in “Script Ohio” — only to be told he played the wrong instrument; to an OSU freshman who was devastated but undeterred after being cut from the band; to a senior sousaphone player who dotted the “i” before the 1998 Michigan game; to the 36-year-old charged with upholding the tradition; to the innovator all the band world is talking about.
“It’s really exciting,” said Howard Williams, Woodmore’s former band director. “Everybody around here that I know talks about it. People up here feel real good about what he’s doing, there’s no question about it.”
Waters’ guiding adage is “tradition through innovation.” OSU fans still set their clock by the same rites and hymns, with “Hang on Sloopy,” “Buckeye Battle Cry,” and “Carmen Ohio” providing fall’s soundtrack.
But increased fund-raising and an amped-up commitment from Ohio State — the school boosted the previously cash-strapped band’s budget from $220,000 to $1 million this season — have raised the stakes. The band will travel to four road games this year, and Waters said new technology has “revolutionized” their shows.
Stop by practice and you’ll notice every marcher has an iPad, which allows them to choreograph and learn elaborate routines in short order.
“Students can see animations of what they’re supposed to be doing on the field, whereas it was just paper before,” Waters said.
The band performed the Jackson tribute, which included the moving moonwalk to “Billie Jean,” then learned the Hollywood show from scratch to perform a week later. The crowd of more than 105,000 roared as Potter soared on his broomstick, Superman saved a falling building, and a ship flying an OSU flag sank one flying UM’s.
The Pirates of the Caribbean finale was also the latest in a line of lighthearted jabs between the Ohio State and Michigan bands. UM’s band formed a script “OHNO” in the Aug. 31 season opener, only for OSU to answer the next week with an “Are You Smarter than a Wolverine?” skit in its halftime ode to TV game shows.
Will UM fire back at its rival Nov. 30 in Ann Arbor?
“No, we are not going to ‘fire back,’ as that is not how things work,” Michigan marching band director John Pasquale said in an email Tuesday. “The show planning takes place many months before the seasons begins. The halftime portion of the game, I guarantee you, will be worth watching.”
In any case, Ohio State vows to be ready for the showdown.
The football team and the band.
“That is the question most frequently asked: What are you going to do next?” Waters said. “You can handle it one of two ways. You can let it keep you up at night and worry about how you’re going to do the next best thing.
“Or you can embrace it, use the creativity around you, and indeed come up with the next best thing and the next greatest thing, and I think we’re able to do that with these shows. It’s been something that we haven’t shied away from. We have not let off the gas at all.”