Several Saturdays a year, a football game turns Ann Arbor upside down.
The result? A twisted web of stories from students, alumni, band mem-
bers and everyone else who play a part in a 126-year-old tradition.
By Doug Wernert
t is 9:30 a.m., six hours before kickoff on a warm,
sunny September morning in Ann Arbor. Members
of the Michigan Marching Band are slowly start-
ing to arrive at Elbel Field, casually carrying their
instruments. Some practice marching, some prac-
tice their music and some throw around a football.
A Labatt's Blue beer truck drives down the street, honk-
ing its horn to the beat of "Let's Go Blue." Standing on
the field - named after Louis Elbel, who wrote the fight
song "The Victors" back in 1898 - the top of the score-
board at Michigan Stadium, located less than a quarter-
mile from the field, is visible.
Director Jamie L. Nix - casually dressed like the band
members in a T-shirt and shorts - makes a quiet entrance.
A blond, tan, 32-year-old man who received his master's
degree from the School of Music in 1999, Nix looks only a
few years older than many of the students he directs. Nix
came back to Michigan in 2001 to become the 13th direc-
tor of the marching band, and when asked about the tra-
dition he inherited, Nix laughed and said "If
you think about it, it can make you nau-
That's how it works in Ann
Arbor, where for several
Saturdays in fall, foot-
ball takes over the city.
Roads are redirected,
high school fields
become prime tail-
, gate spots (at $40
a space) and stu-
and pens are
replaced with a
beer cup and a
maize and blue
ago. The band started in 1896 as a student organization
with no real financial support or place to play. After a
strong performance in front of then-University President
James Angell, the band was granted space to practice in
University Hall, which was located where the present-day
Angell Hall stands. The band made its first appearance at
a football game in the fall of 1898 and hasn't looked back
Throughout the early 1900s, more traditions formed. J.
Fred Lawton and Earl Vincent Moore penned "Varsity" in
1911, adding another hit to the band repertoire. In 1932,
the band created the script "Ohio" prior to the Michigan-
Ohio State game, giving way to a tradition that is still used
in Columbus to this day. In 1953, under the direction of
famed director William Revelli, the Alumni Band joined
the regular band on the field during the homecoming game.
Named "The Blast From the Past," this tradition still con-
Nix knows the history ("The things we do are from 30
years ago, 70 years ago. All the pregame stuff is very tradi-
tional," he says) and the high expectations that the Michi-
gan faithful have for the band. "The fans, the alumni,
everyone expects the band to be the best there is."
With such a legacy to live up to, feverish preparations are
necessary. Students hoping to join the band's ranks move
in almost two weeks before the school year starts, devoting
a hellacious first week to only marching and learning all
the steps. "You're being asked to do a lot of stuff you've
never done before. None of it feels natural, but you get used
to it," says LSA freshman horn player Jim Kozich.
Practicing in the parking lot at Elbel - whose blacktop
surface is painted to resemble a football field - the band
puts in 12-hour-a-day practices, memorizing the steps, the
formations and the music - like a football team learn-
ing the plays in their playbook. Three hundred ninety-six
people tried out for the band this year, vying for one of
the 235 pre-game show spots or a slot in the 265-mem-
ber halftime show, which means a spot on the field, the
holiest of grounds inside Michigan Stadium. Nix estimates
that the band knows about 30 songs before the first game,
including the tunes for halftime, the Michigan songs and
the selections they play while sitting in the stands opposite
-the student section.
During the weeks leading up to the opening game
against Northern Illinois, Nix drills the band hard, work-
ing on every last detail of the songs, his favorite phrase
being "take it back," indicating he wants the band to try a
section of the song again. Standing 10 feet up on a ledge on
the George R. Cavender Tower - named after the band's
fifth director, who served fronI 1971 to 1979 - and using
a microphone headset to communicate his intentions, Nix
expects excellence and gets it. "We try to put in a lot of
hard work during the week, so we don't have to stress too
much on game days," he says.
True to his word, Nix is more relaxed on this morning.
He makes no special preparations for Football Saturdays,
treating it like any other day, although he admits that game
days are the most exciting time of the year for him. The
band shares the same mentality. More excited than nervous,
the members don't seem too phased about performing in
front of the largest crowd watching a football game any-
where in America. As RC sophomore and trumpet player
Aram Sarkisian puts it, "you can't draw on the crowd so
much when you've got a job to do."
During the morning practice, the band is loose, danc-
ing their way through the karaoke-themed halftime show
rehearsal and ending with a chant of "Go Michigan, beat
the Huskies go" and "It's great to be a Michigan Wolver-
ine." In a few hours, the band will congregate again - 90
minutes before kickoff - inside Revelli Hall, dressed in
their full uniform - pants, overalls, jacket with a shield
and cap, hat with a plume, black socks, black shoes, white
gloves and spats.
While the 24-member drumline performs on the front
steps for the fans, the band will be inside doing what is
known as visualization, etching out the day's routine in their
minds. After that, the band, looking like a small musical
army, begins its march to the stadium, stopping in front of
Gate 1 to play the fight song for fans tailgating in the Victor's
parking lot. Once inside the stadium, the band does a special
band-only ceremony in the tunnel and then waits to hear four
magical words from Carl Grapentine, an Illinois native who
has been the voice of the marching band for 36
years. Four words
that signify that -
Saturday is near- A -
ing its apex and
the storied tradition of
Michigan football is going to con-
tinue with no end in sight:
"Baaaand, take the field!"
"It's a family"
A s the band was
the Victor's Lot,
it passed right by
Paul Werth, an alum
from 1952 who has parked in
the lot since 1973 (he pulled
out his actual parking pass from
1973 as proof). Every Foot-
ball Saturday, Werth's kids and