“This practice is top secret,” the earnest young man said. “You can’t be here.”
The most important team in today’s Rose Bowl was spread across the Pasadena City College football field. There was running, some bumping, and somebody barking through a bullhorn.
The earnest young man waved his arm away from the field, and you followed, finally stopping just beyond an end zone.
Then you noticed, he had escorted you to a spot from where you could observe this top secret practice in detail.
You also noticed, he was wearing swim trunks and Mickey Mouse socks.
Meet the Stanford Band, one of the few facets of big-time college athletics that is not always as it seems, or as we expect it to be, and thank goodness for that.
Welcome to the one attraction you can visit on football Saturday afternoons that will challenge your senses, test your wits, make you angry, make you laugh.
Make you realize that for all its elaborate padding, makeup and props, college sports are still about kids who are young, impulsive, rebellious, occasionally inappropriate and, well, still in college.
In a couple of cases this day, they were still in their pajamas.
Some shirtless, others shoeless, the 250-member band prepared for today’s nationally televised halftime show as you would expect kids on holiday to prepare for anything.
They milled around, laughing and joking. The guy yelled something through the bullhorn, they sprinted to a different part of the field.
Once there, they milled around some more until the guy barked again. Then they sprinted to a different part of the field. And so on.
“We only look like a motley crew,” said Evan Meagher, the band’s renowned tree mascot. “We are actually a finely tuned group all striving toward a single goal.”
And that is?
“The national anthem,” he said.
Do you put on a show, or do you march?
“No,” said bandsman Chris Henderson.
On this fine sunny afternoon, there was a tuba player riding a unicycle. There were other “musicians” circling the track in a game of leapfrog.
There was nothing that even remotely resembled marching. There was barely anything that even remotely resembled music.
Somebody was “playing” a fork and knife. Somebody was “playing” a beer keg.
Somebody else was playing what band officials solemnly refer to as a “drum thing” fashioned out of an erector set.
“Our requirements are simple,” said Paul Kalanithi, a slim, shirtless band member who requested that he be identified only as Spartacus. “If you can build it, you can play it.”
Since a school band revolution in 1963 turned a routine marching unit into a sort of flying circus, the group has made headlines by basing entire halftime shows on such ideas.
Today, as always, the mighty Wisconsin marchers will make their followers shout, “Yay!”
The Stanford Band, as always, will make its followers cry, “What?”
This being its first Rose Bowl stage since the team’s last appearance in 1972, there’s no telling how it will look. Or if Rose Bowl officials will even want to look.
Officials at Disneyland took no chances this week, refusing to host the band for an official visit, despite having invited Wisconsin’s.
“To those wondering about our Rose Bowl show, I can say only one thing,” Henderson said. “Bring your Geiger counters.”
Shows in the past have poked fun at everything from spotted owls to the Irish potato famine, an ill-conceived idea that caused school officials to suspend the student-run operation from performing at the Notre Dame game for three years.
The band made local news this year when they greeted UCLA by forming a human handicapped-parking sign.
“That’s only what they thought it was,” Meagher said. “It was really ‘Whistler’s Mother.’ ”
They also enraged some USC fans this season with a halftime show entitled, “The Blair Watts Project.”
Their uniforms are basic pants, shirt and coat . . . but with the loudest tie you can find, and floppy hats containing the wittiest buttons you can find.
The entrance requirements are, well, obviously not anything involving music.
“When I walked in to join the band, I never played an instrument in my life,” Henderson said. “There was some trumpets laid out at the time and I said, ‘OK, I’ll take one of them.’ ”
There is also neither an age nor enrollment restriction. Marching today--or whatever it is they do--will be everyone from 15-year-old freshman prodigies to 61-year-old alumni.
Remember the Stanford trombone player flattened by Cal’s Kevin Moen moments after he’d scored the winning touchdown at the completion of the notorious five-lateral kickoff return that gave Cal a victory in 1982?
His name is Gary Tyrrell. Even though he’s now 38 and a management accounting consultant, he will be marching today.
“What I would say about the band is what promoter Bill Graham once said about the Grateful Dead,” Tyrrell said. “They may not be the best at what they do, but they are the only ones who do it.”
But again, things are not always as they seem. There are indeed band “requirements.”
You should read books by noted thinkers Hermann Hesse and Martin Heidegger.
You should keep up your grade-point average among a group whose average SAT score was, at most recent count, 1,510 out of 1,600.
You should be resourceful enough to pour that intelligence into something other than a book.
Every song played by the Stanford Band is arranged by one of its members, unlike most bands.
Every script and formation is also designed by band members, even if the weeklong discussions sometimes result in disharmony.
“I once got into a fistfight with another member over whether we should form a semicolon or a colon,” Spartacus explained. “He was grammatically incorrect.”
When they do actually play, well, it doesn’t sound that terrible, perhaps because the new musicians undergo intense training, and partially because the band also has musicians who turned down band scholarships at other schools.
Joey Pritikin, a mellophone player who turned down a chance to attend Julliard, said he chose Stanford because, “It just felt like me.”
Spend an afternoon with members of today’s most important team, and that is the feeling you get about all of them.
For all of its politically incorrect blunders, the Stanford Band remains a unit of bright and witty kids who can discover and expand themselves in an environment where they are neither outcast nor nerd.
For all the criticism--much of it well-founded--the Stanford Band remains something that seems not merely fun, but necessary.
“The anti-band,” Meagher said.
The school seems to also recognize this, leaving the band to run itself while fending off critics.
“Juxtaposed with the reputation of the university, the reputation of the band is so different, it makes them seem more strange,” said Bob Carruesco, assistant athletic director. “But while they are not under our control, they are not out of control.”
Carruesco hears the criticism from half of the school’s alumni, and the overwhelming praise from the other half.
“On one hand, they make us wince,” he said. “But on the other hand, that’s their style. This is a way for the Stanford students to poke fun at themselves and society.”
Take the tree.
It’s the school’s mascot only because, when forced to drop “Indians” as a nickname for sensitivity reasons, a couple of band members pulled it out of nowhere while in a sort of think tank.
“They were driving down the road, thinking about mascots, and passed a McDonald’s, and very nearly picked, ‘French Fries.’ ” Henderson said. “But then they saw some trees, and thought that would work even better.”
The Tree--it changes shape and style every year, depending on how the bearer wants to build it--runs around the Stanford sideline, doing silly cheers and striking silly poses and acting very unlike a mascot.
“Hey, I’m not going to be like these other mascots and try to fool the people into thinking I’m actually a bear or something,” said Meagher, who dresses as a palm tree, but with arms and legs. “I mean, I’m just a guy with a tree on his head. Nothing more, nothing less.”
You wonder, is the tree hot?
“Well,” Meagher said, “I consider myself reasonably attractive.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: email@example.com.