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The other champions on the BCS field

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
January 5, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
The Auburn Tigers marching band performs in Arizona.
The Auburn Tigers marching band performs in Arizona.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two other teams will take the field at Monday's college football championship game
  • Bob Greene writes that it's a big evening for the Auburn, Florida State marching bands
  • Greene: They likely won't be featured on TV, but their hard work deserves praise

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- It's the biggest stage in the world of college football.

The talented students from Florida State and Auburn who charge onto the field Monday night in Pasadena, California, will know that nothing in their lives may ever top this feeling. For the great majority of the seniors who won't go on to play professionally, this will be the last time in uniform.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

I'm not referring to the football players. The Florida State Seminoles and the Auburn Tigers will be competing for the national championship, and their head coaches, Jimbo Fisher and Gus Malzahn, have been getting them ready for the game.

But there are two other groups of students from those schools who also will step onto the bright green floor of the Rose Bowl on Monday night. Those squads are even larger in number than the football teams, and, although they draw considerably less national attention, they have been preparing just as diligently.

"It starts with practices in the heat of the Alabama summer," said Corey Spurlin, associate professor of music at Auburn and director of the 380-member Auburn University Marching Band.

"Just like the football players, our musicians are at the very peak of their abilities," said Patrick Dunnigan, professor of music at Florida State University and director of bands, including the 400-member Marching Chiefs.

With kickoff approaching, I got in touch with Spurlin and Dunnigan because the months of work put in by marching band members at schools across the country often gets overlooked. They are a major part of the pageantry of college football, but in recent decades the television networks have all but ignored them most of the time. If the performance of the marching bands at college games each Saturday gets a few seconds on the TV broadcasts, they count themselves lucky.

"Generally, if we do get airtime, it's very brief, minimal," said Auburn's Spurlin. "We'd love to be able to share what we do with more people."

Florida State's Dunnigan said: "The kids in the band don't know any different. I grew up in a world where the halftime shows were seen on TV, but that's over."

The replacements on television have been studio shows with analysis, replays and highlights of other games; the studio shows are lucrative revenue generators, attractive for commercial sponsors, and the switch away from the field at halftime is almost instant on most telecasts.

Still, the audiences inside the stadiums are massive. Florida State's home stadium seats more than 82,000; Auburn's seats more than 87,000. The Rose Bowl, where Monday's national championship game will be played, seats more than 90,000. Few bands of any kind ever get to play in front of that many people. Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones might even be a bit envious.

The musicians, although they do their work on the same gridirons as the football players, are not recognized around campus the way the star quarterbacks or linebackers are. "With 380 musicians in the band, not many people can pick out their faces," Spurlin said.

And as far as the scholarships and perks that go with big-time college football programs: Forget it. At Florida State, Dunnigan said, not only are there no marching band scholarships, but "the student musicians pay for the work they do -- the band is a one-credit class, so they're paying tuition to be in it. We're kind of proud that the members of the band are there by choice."

At Auburn, Spurlin said, the budget that is available for the marching band's expenses goes only so far; the university provides the band's uniforms, "but the members of the band have to pay for the cleaning," and they have to get their uniforms to the laundry after the games.

The intangible rewards, however, are ample. "The individual challenge is to play the instruments as well as they can, to lock into the formations as well as they can," Dunnigan said. "The big picture is when they look at the crowd, see the fans clapping, watch the football team waving at them. The feeling is being a part of something huge." Spurlin said the friendship and the time together is something irreplaceable, something the band members will take with them for the rest of their lives.

Very few members of the marching bands go on to careers as professional musicians. "Some will go on to teach music," Spurlin said, "but for most, they bless us with their talent while they're here, and then they graduate and do something else for a living."

Dunnigan said: "I hope that, in 10 years, some who are in the band now will still play their instruments in church, or in a community musical group."

The physical challenges can be daunting: "We come onto the field in a high-step jog, with legs all the way up," Spurlin said. "They're wearing long-sleeved cadet-style uniforms, heavy hats, and carrying their instruments, and for a 1 o'clock game in Alabama, it can be 98 degrees down on the field."

Dunnigan and Spurlin both said that, each year, there are some musicians who are supremely talented, but who just can't play their instruments well while marching quickly in formation. There also are some who are brilliant at close-order drills, but whose musicianship does not match their strutting skills. The directors have to tell them that they haven't made it onto the bands.

With hundreds of band members on the field, if one musician hits a clunky note or takes a false step, the football fans up in the seats may not notice. But the other band members do, as do the band directors.

"We're all attuned to it, and we know," Dunnigan said. "The accuracy of the notes, the formations to lock into, the crescendos -- we know right away when something's off."

Spurlin said: "Our standards for ourselves are high. We teach a precise work ethic, a pride, that we hope will carry over to whatever the musicians do after they leave here."

As the seniors in both schools' bands, like the seniors on both schools' football teams, soon will do. But first there is Monday night's game. Each band has been allocated six minutes to perform before kickoff, when, as they march, they will play their schools' traditional fight songs. At halftime, each band gets eight minutes; among Auburn's selections, Spurlin said, will be music from stage shows that became popular movies. Dunnigan said that the Florida State band will also include movie music: the James Bond theme, among other songs.

And then, for the musicians whose final season this is, it will be over. "The value of all this will become more apparent to them as the years go on," Dunnigan said.

Spurlin said that when graduating band members tell him that being on the squad has been the time of their lives, he tells them he hopes that turns out not to be true.

"I thank them, but I tell them that I don't really want that for them. I tell them that I hope they will have many, many special moments after they leave college. I tell them that I hope the times of their lives -- the spine-chilling, best moments -- are still ahead of them."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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