Time to cover marching bands more like football teams
Probably no name has appeared more in The Des Moines Register in the last month than "Kirk Ferentz."
That, or "Donald Trump" or "Gov. Terry Branstad." Take your pick.
Ferentz, head football coach of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, isn’t even running for president.
Not to mention that Ferentz was quoted almost daily throughout last fall’s storybook undefeated regular season — the Hawkeyes' first in nearly a century.
On one hand, blanket coverage makes sense for the state’s top-paid employee. He receives around $4 million to lead a team of burly college students, the offensive linemen pushing 300 pounds apiece, to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. That’s a heap of cash per win, or even per wad of gum that Ferentz obsessively chews on the sidelines.
But after the buildup of the 12-0 season and a frustratingly close loss in the Big 10 championship game, what was the real headline out of the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day?
Not the Hawkeyes, who wilted in the face of Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, with occasional help from one of his teammates.
It was the marching bands and the halftime show.
Specifically, the gleeful satirists of the scrappy Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band sparked a social-media firestorm in the last week for their obtuse halftime performance that mocked Iowa as (what else?) a hick farming state — complete with a dancing dairy cow.
The Rose Bowl on Wednesday even officially chastised the Stanford band's performance as "not in line with the values" of the game. Stanford issued a statement that the administration will have what amounts to a stern talk with its band, already slapped with a travel ban as punishment for previous bad behavior.
Granted, what I saw of the Stanford band’s haphazard performance before ESPN cut away — a confused camera pan that swept skyward — wasn’t the most musically inspiring broadcast highlight of the holiday season. (That belongs to Aretha Franklin’s rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors, as songwriter Carole King nearly tumbled from her balcony seat in amazement.)
But I agree wholeheartedly with my sports colleague Andrew Logue that Stanford’s antics shouldn’t rile us. Ideally, the "Iowa nice" trait includes our ability to take a joke at our own expense. Just look at how we endure all these political attack ads during the Iowa caucuses campaign.
My point here is to restore a little parity to the volume of media coverage of football versus marching bands. After all, which is the more universal activity? Football involves a bunch of young men who, even if they win a spot in the NFL, must soon retire with creaky bodies and perhaps even a traumatic brain injury. A marching band is full of musicians of both sexes who can continue to play music for their entire lives.
Yes, I'm a biased band geek. I never marched at the Rose Bowl. But as a high school honor band student toting a mellophone (the trumpet-shaped version of a French horn) I did march in the Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas.
So apparently it falls to me to give Kevin Kastens a smidgen of coverage here.
Kastens, 60, is the veteran director of the Hawkeye Marching Band. He doesn't even earn $1 million. And if he's not being grilled by reporters about the unofficial, controversial "Beer Band" that plays in Iowa City bars the night before home football games, he's probably not being quoted at all.
His phone did ring a little more, thanks to the Rose Bowl.
He’s "not sure why their goal is to offend people," Kastens said Thursday of the Stanford band, which is classified as a "scatter band" or "scramble band" more than a traditional marching band and mostly is self-governed by its student musicians.
"I knew they were going to poke fun at Iowa."
This was at least Kastens' 13th bowl game as a band director, but his first Rose Bowl. The Hawkeyes marchers were guaranteed 2 minutes on air at halftime, and their rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was what made it onto the telecast.
The band's routine included two more Queen hits ("We Will Rock You" and "Another One Bites the Dust") and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" as a nod to the 30th anniversary of the movie "Back to the Future."
Marching band norms have evolved since Kastens was an undergraduate alto sax player stepping among the University of Illinois' Marching Illini. The showmanship flair of drum and bugle corps has filtered down into high school marching bands, let alone college squads.
If I was a sports reporter I'd probably be put on the chess beat. But I tried to fire the same sort of urgent questions at Kastens as if he was a head football coach.
What's the key to the game? A big finish with power chords to really grab the audience is crucial for any marching band, Kastens said.
"If they didn’t like our show," he added, "we always end our show with a fight song." (Iowa native "Music Man" Meredith Willson wrote the Hawkeyes' school fight song.)
Keep in mind that Kastens directs a team dominated by freshmen. Each fall, about 90 musicians of the 250-member band are first-year players. And 85 percent of the band is non-music majors. (One-fourth of the band is engineers.)
What's his playbook look like for next season? The band Chicago getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may prompt a routine of its hits next year. (The only thing I personally like about the band Chicago are my memories of blaring "25 or 6 to 4" in high school pep band.) Or the success of “Star Wars” might mean that the fall 2016 Hawkeyes Marching Band takes a page from John Williams. The band each season prepares six different routines, plus a highlights show drawn from that batch of work.
What about your returning talent on the field? The C.J. Beathard-like "quarterback" of the band, drum major Isaac Anderson, will be back. Next year will be the final season for "Golden Girl" Whittney Seckar-Anderson — the baton twirler who is lavished with a full scholarship. A worldwide search will begin for her coveted spot.
Any shakeups on the coaching staff? Just as Ferentz is looking for a linebackers coach to replace Jim Reid, departing for Boston College, Kastens seeks a new drumline instructor.
I wasn't sure what else to ask Kastens, but then after we spoke I noticed one fan's comment on the Stanford's band's Facebook page: "I'm an Iowa alum and I think the dancing cow is by far the best thing I saw during the game. Have a Happy New Year and good luck next year. Go Hawks!"
So what do you think, coach: Can you work a dancing cow into next season's routine?
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook (/KyleMunson) and Twitter (@KyleMunson).