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When it comes to the bands, the Cougs are the underdogs

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

Such a perceived mismatch is Saturday’s meeting of Washington State and Grambling in Seattle that oddsmakers won’t set a spread.

So I will:

The Cougars are three-trombone underdogs.

“All they have to do is sneeze on the field,” said the Cougs’ Erik Smith of the visitors from Louisiana, “and everyone will be happy.”

Wow. Is there such a thing as bulletin-board material in marching band?

That’s right, marching band. Smith is part of the Cougar drumline.

Wait, you thought this was about football? Since when?

The announcement last February that the Cougs’ annual autumn date in Seattle would be Grambling State had barely passed his lips when WSU athletic director Jim Sterk began diverting attention from the football end of the transaction. This deal, he made clear, was all about the apprearance of legendary Tiger Marching Band.

“It is a show like you have never seen before,” he said.

In the bad old days of Wazzu football, coaches and administrators used to bemoan the habit of Cougar fans basing their ticket investment not on the crimson coursing through their veins but on the marquee. While the Michigans and Tennessees of the world sold out stadiums regardless of whether other team was ranked or reeked, audience participation at Martin Stadium fluctuated in direct proportion to the profile of the opponent.

Play USC or UCLA and Cougar fans might – might – fill the joint.

Play Oregon State or San Jose State, not so much.

So what’s it say about Wazzu now that it’s drumming up an audience – sorry – with the opponent’s marching band?

Well, at first it didn’t say much to Don Hower, but he’s over it.

“To be honest,” said the director of the 250-member Cougar Marching Band, “it hurt me and the kids in the band. When this thing came out, it felt like the university was marketing the visiting band more than us. But after standing back and taking a look at it, I don’t think the kids feel bad about it anymore.

“We’ll get our shots. We’re playing at a luncheon and at a rally at Westlake Center, and there’s no other band there. The pre-game is ours, and a big part of halftime is ours, and we’ll play the best we can. And if we take second place, it won’t be because we didn’t do well.”

Hower has been the Big Baton at Wazzu for 15 years now, and it’s hardly a stretch to say that he salvaged the whole notion of the Cougar Marching Band. But he is hardly oblivious to the irony of his shoe-leather orchestra being second fiddle – sorry – at its own recital. Or even to the fact that his merry men and women have marched in two Rose Bowl parades, but they’ve never had the kind of hype from their own school’s PR mill that’s been afforded the Grambling band.

But, hey, at least all the pressure’s on the other guys.

“I would be surprised,” Sterk intoned back in February, “if Qwest Field is not sold out.”

With about 35,000 tickets sold so far, Sterk may want to start doing eyebrow curls to get the appropriate arch. But the real surprise will be if the chronically thirsty Cougar fans will make it all the way through the demanded blowout – football, not brass – to watch the Grambling band shake and bake after the game. Especially with the temptation of another 12-pack of Animal Beer on ice back in the pickup.

Yes, after. The Tigers will give folks a four-minute taste at halftime, but music appreciation doesn’t truly start until after the final gun.

Or maybe not. One man’s symphony is another’s slam dance.

“Hey, they’re world famous,” said WSU drum major James Harper, “but what they do and what we do are really two different things.”

To a point, that’s true. Grambling puts its band members through a boot camp that physically may be more rigorous than what the football team endures. Training has been known to stretch from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. on a steamy Louisiana day. The emphasis is on footwork as much as fingering.

But the result is spectacular.

Grambling’s is a show band, and maybe the best there is – with a national reputation that goes back 40 years. It was enhanced by the 2002 movie “Drumline” – actually about a fictional college in Atlanta – but long before that the Tigers performed everywhere from the inauguration of the president of Liberia to “Wheel of Fortune.”

Despite some withering commentary from the grandstands, the Cougar band is not chopped liver, either – though it used to be. When Hower arrived, it numbered all of 65 players. Surely the nadir was when the band couldn’t muster enough members to spell “WSU” on the field but instead sheepishly settled for “WS.”

And “Wheel of Fortune” wasn’t going to have them on to buy that vowel.

Hower got the numbers up to around 130 five years ago when WSU president Lane Rawlins asked him what it would take to put 250 musicians on the field. So at Victory Lane’s behest, Wazzu started a recruiting campaign – phone calls, letters, email – only slightly less intensive than that undertaken by the football staff.

Except the band is looking for blue lips, not blue chips.

The Cougs do triple-days the week before classes begin, too, though Hower said that “I can stay serious for about 30 seconds and then we all laugh and have a good time.” At the end of the semester, there’s a $200 stipend awaiting the survivors.

“One of our kids worked it out and said it amounted to about 12 1/2 cents an hour,” Hower said. “Leave it to a math major.”

Still, that is an attraction.

“We’re sweatshop laborers,” said Smith, “but when you’re out of money and it’s Christmas, the 200 looks pretty good.”

Less than 15 percent of the Cougar players are music majors, and that makes Smith – who made his way from Omaha to Pullman – both typical and atypical. He came to WSU to study architecture and wound up majoring in music.

And minoring in philosophy, humor and earthy perspective.

“There’s no way you can get a bunch of white kids from up here to shake their booty and really feel the music the way (Grambling) plays it,” he said.

“Now, musically clean? They’re far from it. Our drumline is more clean musically. But it’s not about that for them. It’s about the show and feeling the music. It’ll be fun to see how they work a crowd, but let’s face it – all they’ll have to do in the Northwest is show up and we’ll love them.”

But what about the Cougs? Don’t they feel unappreciated?

“Nobody’s depressed, nobody’s nervous, nobody’s intimidated,” he said.

And for being even a bigger underdog than Grambling’s football team is?

“Oh, if eyes could only roll enough.”

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