COLUMBUS — It was a swift rise and a dizzying fall.
Two years after Elmore, Ohio, native Jon Waters assumed his dream job as director of the Ohio State Marching Band at age 36, he was fired Thursday after a university investigation uncovered a deep-rooted culture of sexual harassment within the band.
The two-month inquiry stated Mr. Waters knew or should have known of a “hostile environment.” Allegations include an annual “Midnight Ramp” event in which band members marched into Ohio Stadium wearing only their underwear — and sometimes nude — sexually explicit nicknames, secrecy oaths taken to “conceal objectionable traditions and customs,” and hazing.
Mr. Waters, 38, was shown the report Wednesday and given the chance to resign. He was fired on Thursday morning.
“This was a shock,” said Columbus lawyer David Axelrod, who is representing Mr. Waters. “Jon bleeds scarlet and gray. I’m sure you can imagine this was a terrible disappointment to him. But we disagree with the way he has been described, and Jon’s going to fight to clear his good name.”
Mr. Waters did not return messages left on his cell phone.
The firing was a stunning blow to the famed 225-member all-brass and percussion ensemble known as The Best Damn Band in the Land and to those who proudly watched Mr. Waters’ ascent.
Visitors to Elmore are greeted by a red and white sign reading, “THE HOME OF JON WATERS: OHIO STATE BAND DIRECTOR.”
Residents there watched Mr. Waters climb from a middle-school saxophone player who dreamed of dotting the “i” in “Script Ohio” — only to be told by former Woodmore band director Howard Williams that he played the wrong instrument — to an OSU freshman who redoubled his drive after being cut from the band, to a senior sousaphone player who dotted the “i” before the Michigan game in 1998.
Mr. Waters served as assistant director before becoming the OSU band’s ninth director in 135 years in 2012. He vaulted the band to mainstream national fame with innovative halftime shows that drew millions of viewers on YouTube, including a tribute to the evolution of video games and a moon-walking ode to Michael Jackson.
Along the way, Mr. Waters kept a close connection to northwest Ohio. When Ohio State played at Michigan, Mr. Waters detoured the buses to a local high school football game, where the band would play at halftime before continuing their trip. Elmore officials presented Mr. Waters with the sign in his name on July 10.
Mr. Waters’ father, John, called the termination “obviously a shock to all of us.”
“It’s terrible,” Elmore mayor Matt Damschroder said. “This was his dream, and he was doing an exceptional job at it. If you look at the shows, he was outstanding. So this is tough on everybody.”
Ohio State began its investigation of the band on May 23 after the parent of a band member expressed concerns to the university of a sexualized culture.
Among the instances cited in a 92-page report include the “Midnight Ramp” entrance. While most of the 10 current or former band members interviewed by school officials said participation was not required, they described a tradition of half-dressed students — “a few band members get completely naked,” two witnesses said — letting loose after an annual semiformal event. Mr. Waters and staffers were present, including assistant director Michael Smith, who observed the event for the first time last August.
“I don’t believe I just witnessed that,” Mr. Smith recalled thinking, according to the report.
The report stated Mr. Waters told the band in June that he was ending the midnight tradition.
Allegations included bawdy nicknames given to rookie members and crude tricks that involved simulated sex acts.
New band members were also given a “band final” exam. Questions included: “Who gets around more than a town bicycle?” “Who is the most unfortunate looking?” and “Who should have an instruction manual for their genitals?” They received a study guide of sorts in a 40-page unofficial songbook, which included alternate, sexualized lyrics to the fight songs of Ohio State and other universities.
A dozen current or former band members or staff members contacted by The Blade either declined comment — including Elmore native Dylan Fletcher, the band’s business manager, and Toledo native Jeff Knowles, who dotted the “i“ in 2002 — or did not respond to messages.
The report concluded that Mr. Waters “failed to eliminate the sexual harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.”
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students,” new Ohio State University President Michael Drake said in a statement. “We expect every member of our community to live up to a common standard of decency and mutual respect and to adhere to university policies.”
The report noted many of the traditions long predated Mr. Waters’ time with the band. Though Mr. Axelrod declined to address specific charges, he questioned why only 10 current or past band members were interviewed and said he never had a chance to speak with investigators.
“We disagree with many of the conclusions in this report,” he said, adding that Mr. Waters had not decided how to proceed legally.
Meanwhile, the OSU band will play on as planned this season. The university plans to select an interim director well in advance of the Buckeyes football team’s season opener at Navy in Baltimore on Aug. 30 and take measures to ensure a change in the band’s culture is “swift and impactful.” Ohio State has appointed former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery to lead an independent task force to review the matter further.
Blade staff writer Stephen Gruber-Miller contributed to this report.