CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois Marching Illini provides the soundtrack for a long list of cherished football traditions. Gridiron games wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without the band leading the players out of the tunnel, playing “Imperial March” from “Star Wars” on third downs, and of course “Oskee Wow Wow” after every touchdown. But the band is about to abandon one lesser-known custom that dates back several generations – and everybody is happy to see this one go.
Band director Barry Houser supervises the Marching Illini from a rented scissor lift overlooking the field behind the Krannert Art Museum. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
In January, the Marching Illini will break ground on a permanent practice field, complete with synthetic turf, lights for dusky rehearsal hours and a two-story observation tower – thereby ending the band’s decades-old tradition of killing grass, blasting classroom professors and spraining ankles. The field will be near the corner of First Street and Gregory Drive in Champaign in the current “play field” complex, where two grass fields will each be replaced with synthetic turf. The band facility is the result of agreements among the College of Fine and Applied Arts, University housing and Campus Recreation.
“This is a win-win-win for everybody,” says Robyn Deterding, the director of Campus Recreation.
Previous Marching Illini practice locations ranged from a plot on the South Quad by the Stock Pavilion, to a field near State Farm Center that is now a parking lot, and an area west of Memorial Stadium that is currently used for tailgating. These days, the band practices between the College of Business Instructional Facility and the Krannert Art Museum, or between Huff Hall and the Art and Design Building.
“There are spaces that the band has used that weren’t really ours,” says Barry Houser, the director of the Marching Illini and U. of I.’s athletic bands. “Each space worked for four to six years, but if it was a grass field, it would end up dead or turn into a construction site.”
For each temporary home, the band had to lease lights and scissor lifts and have yard lines painted. The topography wasn’t ideal on any of these fields, but some locations included actual obstacles. The South Quad field, for example, has an electrical box on the band’s 20 yard line. Since marching musicians tend to use their eyes to check alignment with their squad members rather than look at the ground, Houser said rolled ankles were a common problem.
“For a band program that can be traced back to 1868 – the second year this university existed – it’s amazing that we’ve dealt with this problem for so long,” he said. “It has been pretty subpar for where we should be with a program like this.”
Houser said a petition begun by band alumni during the drought of 2012 brought the problem to the attention of school officials, who sent Facilities and Services personnel to inspect the South Quad field then being used by the Marching Illini. After repeated trampling by 360 pairs of feet, the grass was dead and the soil was so compacted that it could not be aerated, Houser said. Facilities and Services advised the Marching Illini to avoid using that field for the next two years.
“Big Ten bands do a lot of high chair (stepping with knees lifted hip-high), fast chair and run-on steps,” Houser said. “There’s a lot of motion that’s digging in, as opposed to the glide step used by corps style bands, where the wear and tear isn’t as much. Just with the mass of people and the style of marching that we do, we kill everything that grows.”
Beginning in fall 2012, meetings were held involving about two dozen campus officials, all focused on trying to find a permanent home for the Marching Illini. Campus Recreation had a representative at those meetings, but Deterding was dealing with a similar dilemma: She was facing the potential loss of the two grass fields in the Campus Recreation play fields complex. Housing, hoping to address drainage problems, wanted to turn those two fields into a retention pond.
“That would be a problem for us,” Deterding said. “Those fields are used by everything from flag football to soccer to lacrosse. We put so much use on those fields that by the end of the fall semester, they’re down to dirt and we can’t use them again until the next fall.”
Housing then proposed an underground drainage pond, which would allow synthetic turf fields to be built on top of the retention area, at a higher cost. But at a meeting with other Big Ten recreation directors, Deterding learned of a possible solution.
“Michigan State and Ohio State talked about this collaborative effort where their marching bands practice on their turf fields, and the bands pay for maintenance,” she said. “So I proposed to Fine and Applied Arts that we would let the band use our new turf fields in exchange for some financial assistance.”
The U. of I. Board of Trustees approved the plan at a meeting last summer. The new field should be ready for the Marching Illini next fall. Campus Recreation will have use of the field during the hours before and after band practices.
“Can the stars align any better?” Houser asked. “Housing still gets their retention pond, Campus Rec gets their field, and everyone comes out smiling.”
The Marching Illini will present its annual concert of halftime highlights, fan favorites and traditional music at 3 p.m. on Oct. 27 (Sunday) at State Farm Center. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 on the day of the show, with a $2 discount for U. of I. students and school groups. Tickets are on sale now at TheStateFarmCenter.com or by phone at 866-455-4641.