This story won a San Francisco Press Club award for sports reporting. The next Big Game is Saturday, Nov. 23 at Stanford.
On a fall evening at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto — better known as “The Farm” — college-football rivals UC Berkeley and Stanford meet for their annual showdown at the 120th “Big Game.”
The stadium is divided in half, with Cal fans in blue and gold on one side, and Stanford in Cardinal red on the other. Chants and cheers can be heard throughout the crowd.
The Band Always Wins
Even with all the action taking place on the field, it is hard not to notice the full concert going on by the end-zone stands. There are over 100 people playing instruments like tubas, flutes and marching drums.
It’s none other than the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band.
“We have a fun saying in the band, that the band always wins. So even when the football team doesn’t win, or the volleyball team doesn’t win or whatever athletic event we are at ... the band always wins,” says public relations director and Stanford senior Mireille Bejjani, better know by her band name “Fan.”
Today, the band has ditched their well known red sport coats, white fishing hats and ugly ties. Instead they’ve opted for full-body alien suits and quarantine outfits complete with gas masks.
There’s also a few Harry Potters, Shreks, and what I think are Canadian bobsledders. It’s a tradition for band members to dress in costumes for the night.
“We try to go with the times a little bit. My freshman year my section was dragons and our section leader was Khaleesi Mother of Dragons from ‘Game of Thrones,’” says Bejjani.
The man responsible for all this, Dr. Arthur Barnes, spent 34 years as a music professor, and the Stanford band’s director, from 1964 until 1997.
The band underwent some major changes once he was appointed.
“The style of the band before I arrived was quite military, with military uniforms, straight lines marching. It seemed that a change was very necessary to be different from USC, UCLA, and Cal, and so I decided to form the largest rock ‘n’ roll band in college history,” says Barnes.
Under Dr. Barnes, the band’s halftime performances would quickly become the stuff of legends. They started to play popular rock songs and performed choreographed formations during their shows, usually taunting their opponents.
“It took no time to figure this out — that this is the right thing to do,” Barnes says, “because they wanted to be different and that was certainly different.”
The band’s tradition of half-time performances still lives on today.
“One of the band staff positions that we have is called graphics,” says Bejjani. “They are the ones who write the script along with a team of writers, and they meet with the field show committee to approve the shows, and then they design the formations that we’re going to make.”
Over the years the band’s field shows have not always been received warmly. In 1991, the drum major dressed up as a nun during a half-time show at Notre Dame and conducted the band using a wooden cross to taunt the Catholic university.
The incident led to the band being banned from returning to campus.
Then, in 2004, the band made national news after it mocked Mormons during a halftime show at Brigham Young University.
The incident that the band is arguably most infamous for is also a major moment in sports history.
On November 20, 1982, it was the 85th annual Big Game at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. Just when Cal looked like they had the game sealed, Stanford quarterback John Elway would lead the Cardinals on a heroic last-minute drive downfield that would set up a field goal to give Stanford the lead.
Gary Terrell, the trombone-section leader for the band in 1982, remembers it all like it was yesterday.
“Stanford takes the lead 20-19, but there are four seconds left on the clock,” he says. “Everything is great, all we have to do is run out these last four seconds on the clock.”
The Stanford band was ready to celebrate, he continues. “During this final series, the Stanford band had began to edge down to field level to get ready for our post-game concert.”
There was one last shot at a miracle for the Cal Bears. What happened next would later be known as “The Play.”
“As I experienced it at the time, it seemed like it was all slow motion,” says Barnes.
Upon receiving the kickoff, the Cal Bears began to pass the football around like a hot potato. Cal player Kevin Moan received the final lateral and burst into the endzone to wild cheering.
Gary and the band walked onto the field, only to become part of the action.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw this Cal player running through the end zone,” Terrell remembers. “Figured he just probably wanted to get the heck out of there, but he had the ball and the next thing I knew I was down.”
Cal broadcaster Joe Starkey provided the play-by-play commentary for the game on that fateful day.
“Since then, there have been a lot of games where somebody had won a game on a lateral,” he says. “But nobody has ever done it when the band is on the field, literally running through the opponents. So I don’t know how you ever top that. I really don’t.”
In that moment the Cal Bears and Joe Starkey cemented themselves in history — and Gary Terrell had cemented himself in infamy.
The Banned Band
Back at tonight’s Big Game, the action isn’t quite as exciting as it was in 1982. Stanford secures the victory and keeps the cherished big game trophy, known as “the Axe,” on campus for another year.
The band was noticeably absent from last year’s Big Game after a University investigation revealed issues like drinking and hazing.
They were banned from traveling to away games for the 2015-16 academic year.
Last year, the band hired a new director, who, among other responsibilities, is tasked with changing the band’s ‘culture’ to avoid future sanctions.
But don’t expect them to start marching in line.
For Doctor Arthur Barnes, the man who shaped the band into what it is today, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There are people my age who come up to me and say, ‘Can’t you do something about that band?’ And I say: ‘Yeah, I did it in 1963 — I made it a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Hate them or love them, this band continues to scatter on.
This story originally aired in February 2018.