In a season that’s been focused more on conference realignment than the game itself, college football’s best take on the chaos came from Rice University’s band during the Owls’ September 3 game at the University of Texas.
The Rice MOB (which stands for Marching Owl Band, even though the band’s website notes, “…we don’t march. Ever.”) took the field of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium at halftime and spelled out “SEC,” a reference to Texas A&M’s plan to leave UT and the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference—or, as the MOB announcer William R. Price read from the student-authored script, “Satan’s Evil Conference.”
Quickly, the formation changed to “$EC,” as concise a critique of the college football universe as anyone could ask for.
Further flaunting Rice’s status as chief smart aleck of all the former Southwest Conference schools, Price topped that with a perfect Aggie joke: “We congratulate the S.E.C. and the Big 12, as both conferences improve their average IQ,” he deadpanned.
All in a normal six minutes’ work for the Rice MOB, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. With its Blues Brothers-inspired uniforms and nonmusician “show assistants” building props and taking part in skits, the MOB is as much about performance art as playing “Louie Louie,” the band’s signature song.
Rice’s is one of less than a dozen prominent football “scatter” or “scramble” bands, which “scatter” into formation. The groups generally thrive at smaller, brainy schools where football doesn’t dominate the campus (or, sadly, the other team), and their performances are fertile ground for nerdy, joke-filled halftime-show aggression. Naturally, that includes most Ivy League schools, as well as Stanford University’s infamous squad.
The MOB is not known for getting itself in trouble quite as often as the Cardinal’s pranksters, but it has had its moments. After 1973’s “Halftime of Infamy,” the band hid in their own stadium for hours from a crowd of Aggies who had been angered by the MOB’s goose-stepping imitation of the Corps and mockery of Reveille.
More recently, the band took aim at Todd Graham, the Rice football coach who ditched the school in January 2007 after just one season for the University of Tulsa, a Conference USA rival. (Graham had been Tulsa’s defensive coordinator).
The MOB, which brainstorms ideas on an e-mail list and holds weekly meetings that resemble a Saturday Night Live writer’s room, had eleven months to think about the way they’d greet him.
“The entire Rice community was expecting its feelings to be expressed, and they were expecting the band to do it,” said band director Chuck Throckmorton, who is in his ninth year as the MOB’s godfather.
What they got was “Todd Graham’s Inferno,” in which the MOB searched through the various circles of hell for their former coach. “We knew he wasn’t in Limbo (since he had no spine),” went one line. The final circle was, of course, Tulsa.
All was in good fun until the “walk-off line,” which called Graham by a certain feminine-hygiene-inspired slang term for “jerk.” That inspired a formal complaint by Tulsa’s athletic director.
“We don’t aim to get complaints,” said Greg Narro, the band’s drum minor. “We aim to entertain.” (The Graham show was one year before Narro entered Rice.)
This year they’ve even played it straight. One week after the Texas game, at home against Purdue, the MOB paid tribute to the university’s long association with NASA, putting a two-thirds scale cardboard model of the international space station on the field. It stretched from 10 yard line to 10 yard line and bench to bench.
Where more formal marching bands deliver a nostalgic experience for older generations of alumni, the MOB feels like it is for, as well as by, the students. Because Rice doesn’t have a music education program, Throckmorton doesn’t have to worry about training future band directors or high school music teachers. His students are more likely to be rocket scientists.
That also means anything goes musically. Songs like Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and “Because, It’s Midnite” (from the pioneering Internet humor website Homestar Runner) are staples. Asked about the band’s most unusual instrument, Ollie Barthelemy, the drum major, replied, “We have an accordion section.”
Three accordions, to be precise. Cellos, violins, guitars and synthesizers also regularly appear, while a former MOBster once invented something called the udderbot, which involves a sawed-off glass bottle, water and a rubber glove. A theremin is also in the works.
“If you showed up with a kazoo, you can play with the band,” Narro said. Many nonmusicians do. “We play the kazoo all the time,” added Katherine Humphreys, a show assistant. “It’s fantastic!”
Which is why the MOB has grown bigger than ever. Throckmorton used to say the band was between sixty and 120 people—members come and go, with flexible rehearsal schedules to accommodate the average busy, overachieving Rice student—but lately it has consistently stayed above one hundred.
“We’re growing,” Throckmorton said. “It’s fun. We can almost spell four-letter words now.”
And at a time when college football seems less and less about the fans and students, and more and more about acronyms like BCS and $EC, perhaps the sport could use a few of those.