The Morrill Act, through which the University of Nebraska was created, stipulated that land grant institutions must support "...at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts...". In 1876, to fulfill the Act’s requirement for military tactics to be taught, the fledgling University established the Military Science program.
In 1879, a new commandant, Lt. Isaac T. Webster, took over the cadets. At the time, the cadets were accompanied only by, as colorfully depicted by the 1884 yearbook, "the unreliable 'yip, yip' of some awkward scrub in the ranks, accompanied by deafening wails from a broken-voiced flute." Unimpressed, Lt. Webster called for volunteers to create a band and offered those who would take on the extra duty something very valuable -- free uniforms.
Cadet uniforms could be prohibitively expensive, between $14.50 and $20.25 notes the History of the Military Department University of Nebraska 1876 - 1941, and the promise of a free uniform drew twelve eager cadets. The Hesperian Student notes "Through the aid of Lincoln’s generous citizens grey uniforms were purchased, which are now the property of the band."
The enthusiasm of the new cadet band may have exceeded their musical experience, however. The 1884 yearbook notes that "Prominent Lincolnites collected two hundred dollars, purchased a set of handsome gray uniforms and presented them to the band on condition that the donors would never be required to listen to any of its music."
In May 1882, campus was buzzing with excitement over the baseball game that would be played in Crete that month. The young band was also enthusiastic, and the university paper, The Hesperian Student, reported that "The Cadet Band set all a roaring by coming on the scene in sober black suits, white ties and gloves and the tallest of 'stove-pipe' hats." To fill its ranks, the cadet band even recruited a high school student from Plattsmouth, Frank Wheeler, to join the ensemble for the day. It was noted that Frank played baritone, "and excellently, too."
The Cadet Band joined with Crete's band to lead the excited students from the train station to the ball grounds, where, despite the students' best efforts to cheer on the team, Doane won 32 to 10.
In 1898, inspired by the Chicago World's Fair, the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was held in Omaha, Nebraska. The multi-month event drew attendees from near and far, including President McKinley. The Omaha Daily Bee notes that Cadets marched in the opening 2 mile parade dressed in "blue coats and white duck trousers." The Cadets may have spent the next several days at Fort Omaha for their annual encampment.
"The University Cadet band will accompany the train and wake up old Missouri," proclaimed the May 27, 1904 Daily Nebraskan, describing an upcoming excursion to visit the St. Louis World's Fair. The Cadets had arranged early in 1904 to make their annual encampment at the fairgrounds, similar to their experience at the much closer 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha. The University sponsored a decorated train to take students to the exhibition.
In 1918, sweeping changes to the military department were taking place due to the Great War. The Student Army Training Corps (SATC) was formed, temporarily replacing the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), which had only just replaced the Cadets a few years before. In the midst of this, William T. Quick, affectionately known as "Billy", took over direction of the band. Quick would remain the band's director until 1937, the longest stretch of time in the band's history up until that point. During his tenure, the band grew in size and popularity while continuing to be part of the military.
A century later, Quick's reputation for kindness remains a pillar of his legacy. His successor, Donald Lentz, said of Quick "He was just the finest person you had ever met." An entire page of Pride of the Cornhuskers is filled with band members fondly reminiscing about Quick. Loved by his music students and band members, Quick returned the sentiment upon his retirement, remarking to The Daily Nebraskan about the band: "...I love the work no matter how they play. I'll direct them until I die."
November 1st, 1927, "The March King" John Philip Sousa and his band paid a visit to Lincoln, Nebraska for two much anticipated concerts on the newly updated Coliseum stage. His visit became a large event for the city of Lincoln. Over a dozen high school bands came to town for "band day" and paraded through the streets. The lucky bands took part in both concerts, "formed into one huge organization and directed by Sousa himself." The Daily Nebraskan reported that even the University of Kansas band planned to take part in the proceedings, playing Sousa marches during the concert intermissions. An estimated 5,000 people attended the two concerts to hear Sousa's band and the other participants in "band day."
The legacy of Sousa's visit still endures today. During his visit, Sousa presented the R.O.T.C. band with a silver "loving cup" trophy for the regiment's rating the previous year, a trophy which rests today in the School of Music's halls. Also, at the request of Chancellor Burnett, Sousa composed the "University of Nebraska March" the following year.
In March of 1932, the band got a little bigger through the addition of "Big Bertha," a five foot drum. Bertha was joined by two lyres and decorated trumpets, part of a move that John K. Selleck noted in The Daily Nebraskan made the university "the only school in the Big Six that can boast of having such extensive equipment." Steffens writes in Pride of the Cornhuskers that Quick, the band director, did not appreciate the drum. "He thought it had a terrible sound quality."
During Don Lentz's time as marching band director, Big Bertha and the other instruments fell out of use. It was not until 1961 that Big Bertha returned to aid the introduction of band twirler Joyce Burns. "In one moment, I burst out of Big Bertha's innermost depths, into a world of band sounds and cheering crowds" she recalled in a letter to Snider in 1992. 1961 also saw the return of the lyres as band director Snider mixed old traditions with new ideas.
By the end of the 1920s the military garb of the marching band was beginning to detract from the band's performances. After a subset of the band traveled to West Point in 1928, a local paper compared their looks to "messenger boys," a comment that The Daily Nebraskan rebutted by saying the author "probably meant that the boys looked quite dashing for the messenger boys are quite a dashing lot." It was undeniable, however, that the marching band's appearance did not match their increasing role on campus as a purveyor of pep.
In 1935, The Daily Nebraskan published a scathing article comparing the "dull and colorless gray" Nebraska band with the "glittering" dress of the visiting University of Kansas band. "Brighter uniforms would help a lot," the article remarked. By early 1936, spurred by the Kansas visit, it was announced that the military department would be purchasing new scarlet and cream uniforms. "A properly dressed band is a better marching band," the military department's Colonel Oury was quoted as saying. The band's director, Billy Quick, agreed: "They play better now that they have good looking suits."
When beloved director Billy Quick fell ill in the fall of 1937, new hire Donald Lentz took over marching band duties. He could not have foreseen that he would continue as the marching band director for more than twenty years, and Director of Bands until 1973. During his time with the band, the group grew in size, became a civilian organization rather than a military one, undertook creative drill formations, marched in the Rose Bowl and parade, weathered World War II, and added songs to the band's repertoire. Lentz made the musicality of the group his highest priority. For Lentz, this emphasis meant rejecting trends of other programs at the time, such as the addition of twirlers and dance teams. "A band has to be the main group, not just an accompanying group," he told the Omaha World Herald.
Lentz was known nationally for formalizing "Band Day" as a monumentally large event for high school band members. He was also recognized for his study of Asian cultures and history. He traveled frequently to the continent, collecting art and instruments and researching musicology. Today, a room in UNL's Love Library is dedicated to this collection. Lentz is also remembered through the Nebraska State Bandmasters Association's Donald A. Lentz Outstanding Bandmaster Award and the Donald A. Lentz Memorial Band Fund.
On a blustery, snowy day in 1938, the first official Band Day for high school bands took place in Lincoln, Nebraska. At its peak, Band Day would draw 3,600 students from 60 high schools across the state for a full day with a parade, football game, and massive on-field formations with dozens of other high school bands.
The concept of "Band Day" at UNL appears in print as early as 1926, when composer and conductor John Philip Sousa visited Lincoln and conducted high school bands. Within a decade, Band Day was an annual event with participants ranging from Nebraska and Iowa high school bands to municipal and company bands. An advertisement in 1933 claimed about the "music spectacle," that there would be a parade "through the downtown district, followed by a mass concert of hundreds of musicians in the stadium." When Donald Lentz became the director, he refined this existing event into a high school specific occasion. Lentz's rationale for this change was to improve band member recruitment and to build "...interest in the band across the state," he recalled in a 1973 Omaha World Herald article.
Early in its history, the massive scale of Band Day was one of its most appreciated qualities. Begun by John Selleck in the midst of the Great Depression, Band Day filled seats in a relatively new stadium desperately in need of an audience. A few years later during World War II, Band Day's size and popularity drew another needed audience despite higher expenses and rations. Don Lentz said in a 1974 interview that "the only thing that saved the Athletic Department was that Band Day." Lentz recalled that Band Day was so popular with the Athletic Department during WWII that Athletic Director Potsy Clark asked Lentz if every game could be Band Day.
The sheer size of Band Day was ultimately its downfall. By 1971, as rising demand for seats and enhancements to the stadium made it difficult to host so many students even once a year. In the decades following the war, the Athletic Department's support for Band Day began to decline and its activities restricted. In a fiery letter to Nebraska State Bandmaster's Association members in 1966, George Meredith predicted the end of the event: "We are witnessing, here in Nebraska, the death throes of the oldest and finest institution of its type in the nation - that being the University of Nebraska Band Day. Commencing this fall, the assembled bands will no longer be allowed to march on the field during half-time of the Band Day game...Make no mistake, Band Day has been pushed off the field - soon it will find itself out of the stadium as well." Within 5 years, Meredith's prediction had come true, as 1971 was the final Band Day at the University of Nebraska.
"A red flag hung outside the office of Band Director Don Lentz early Saturday morning...it mean[t] that the athletic board had decided...to send the band to Pasadena on New Year's day," described The Daily Nebraskan on December 15, 1940. After weeks of uncertainty, the band was going to The Rose Bowl! Along the way, the lucky members on the trip stopped to perform in cities on the route and visited Juárez, Mexico. As Don Lentz recalls in a later interview, such sightseeing was part of a requirement that the band's travel be "an educational trip."
On top of the expected challenges of traveling with a large group and performing in a series of events, the day the band left Lincoln Don Lentz received word that ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Arrangers, and Performers, was declaring a strike which would "go info effect on January 1st," Don Lentz recalled in Pride of the Cornhuskers. "Since both the parade and game were to be broadcast and every one of our scheduled pieces was ASCAP, we couldn't use them." Lentz scrambled to write out parts to pieces not under ASCAP's purview which could be used in both the parade and game, and band members put together words to the tune of Song of the Vagabonds by Rudolph Friml, which is better known today to band members as Band Song.
In spite of the ASCAP strike, Pride of the Cornhuskers contains accounts of the band striking up "Nebraska U" during the parade. Lentz recalls "It scared me to death and the first thing after we got back, Regent Thompson called and asked 'Didn't the band play No Place?' I said, 'Yes, but not intentionally.'" Fortunately, ASCAP did not follow up on this performance despite the ban. The band followed up the parade with a performance at the game which, according to The Daily Nebraskan, "drew the plaudits way over and above the cheers for the Stanford and tournament of Roses bands."
World War II brought with it many changes for the University of Nebraska as well as the band program. The 1944 yearbook explained that "...the armed forces drew heavily upon the personnel of the...band. This year for the first time in its history, coeds were permitted to march with the band…" Band director Prof. Lentz recalled that "during those war years we had to rely on the ladies all the way through." Women continued to be involved in marching band until 1946, when women were excluded from marching, but continued to play in concert band.
In 1961, Don Lentz became Director of Bands and his former student, Jack Snider, stepped into the role of Marching Band Director. Snider would remain in that position until he, too, became Director of Bands in 1973. As difficult as it may have seemed to fill the shoes of the renowned Lentz, Snider became a legend of his own. Unafraid to forge his own path, in his very first season, Snider made changes to the style of music and the formations that the band was performing. A Sunday World-Herald article from 1961 describes the 220 bpm pace being used by the band for entering the field as "...radical evidence that the musical 'Pride of the Cornhuskers' has a new director with new ideas." New ideas, the article concludes, which resulted in "more oomp-pa-pa." Snider told The Daily Nebraskan that he planned to "...try new formations different for every game."
One of Snider's immediate changes in 1961 was to add a twirler to the band, Joyce Burns, the first female twirler who quickly became known as "The Sunshine Girl." Additionally, in 1962, Snider co-founded the Nebraska State Bandmaster's Association, a group which endures today more than half a century later.
Snider's time as Marching Band Director included some transformations which he did not instigate. Snider resisted the inclusion of women in the marching band, whose integration in 1972 was one of the largest changes in the marching band's history. Another shock to the marching band community in Nebraska during his tenure was the decline of Band Day under pressure from the Athletic Department, despite the best efforts of Snider and Lentz to preserve the tradition. "These two men have worked long and hard serving the best interests of Nebraskans. They now face a most bitter reward for their services," wrote George Meredith of the Nebraska State Bandmaster's Association in 1966 about restrictions to Band Day.
Snider's mark upon the band program, however, was perhaps not so much what decisions he made or trials he weathered, but the impact he made upon his students. Snider is remembered as a director who cared deeply about his students, and who spent considerable time and effort to support them. Multiple staff and faculty members remarked in a Lincoln Journal Star published in 2015 after Snider's death that Snider was ever-present, even after retirement, at student recitals and concerts on UNL's campus.
Besides during WWII women had not been welcome in the marching band, with the exception of a handful of twirlers, despite the involvement of "co-eds" in concert bands. By the 1970s, women were pressuring the band program to allow them to join, threatening to lodge a discrimination complaint with the Faculty Senate Women's Rights Committee. Director Snider resisted, claiming a variety of reasons why the ensemble should remain all-male, including uniform sizing, physical demands, and increased expenses. Toni Hillard, a member of the NU Women's Action Group, rejected those excuses in a Daily Nebraskan article: "Was he [Snider] watching at Band Day as both women and men from all over the state marched together?" By 1971, the band agreed to open its ranks to women, but it was not until 1972 that five women were successful in the audition process.
The first years were likely not easy for the handful of women in the majority male band. Pages of Jack Snider's scrapbooks from that time are filled with articles written about the women from their hometown newspapers. In a clipping, one of the first five women, Lilly Coniglio, remarked to a reporter from that such attention "...put us in the spotlight and resulted in a lot of extra pressure." Gary Steffens, author of Pride of the Cornhuskers, admits that within the band's environment the women faced challenges from their peers as well. "I think we picked on the girls worst of all," Steffens wrote of a "semi-underground" publication produced by band members. "While they were good musicians and marchers...we were very upset about it."
1974 brought with it the most impressive trip the band had ever yet attempted: 9 concerts across half a dozen European countries. After massive fundraising efforts by the band and alumni, the band set out to perform in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and visited Austria and England as well. They had planned on performing in London but a fire at the concert venue canceled the event. Along the way, the band faced challenges such as parades in narrow streets, lack of venues for marching exhibitions, and even one run-in with the Swiss military. However, the multi-week trip provided many memories for both band members and their audiences. Twirler Diane Tangeman remarked later that the Europeans who saw the band perform were "astonished at the size of the band and its sound."
In the fall of 1975, the band was under the charge of Dr. Robert Fought, who had big plans for the ensemble. He added 39 personnel to the band's membership, half of whom were members of a brand new flag corps. Dubbed "the ladies in red," the new group carried red and white banners which band staff member Rose Johnson recalls were attached to 8 foot poles. Prior to the flag corps, the band had partnered for performances with The Huskerettes, a dance team who incorporated flags into their routines.
This expansion of the band was not altogether a smooth one; there was not room for them in the stadium. A Daily Nebraskan article in September explained that the Athletic Department provided 12 rows of seats for the band. Athletic Director Bob Devaney was quoted as saying "Right now the band needs seats and money...we don't have either." Fortunately, the Athletic Department ultimately gave permission for bleachers to be set up for the band's additional 40 members.
1975 was also the first year that the band had a female drum major, Diane Miller Frost, who served as drum major in 1975 and 1976.
To mark 100 years since its formation, the band program held a series of concerts for Symphonic Wind Ensemble, Concert Band, and the Cornhusker Marching Band. The Symphonic Band also toured eastern Nebraska, holding three concerts a day to celebrate.
The Cornhusker Marching Band traveled to Washington, D.C. to take part in the Kennedy Center Honors event celebrating Johnny Carson, longtime host of The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1949. After Carson's death in 2005, the marching band performed a 2007 halftime show in his honor.
In 1996, the University of Nebraska was awarded the Sudler Trophy, an honor bestowed through the John Philip Sousa Foundation. This award is for a band which has the "highest of musical standards and innovative marching routines and ideas, and which has made important contributions to the advancement of the performance standards of college marching bands over a number of years." The Sudler Trophy resides in the Glenn Korff School of Music.
In 1996 and then again in 2000, the band took part in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland. In 1996, the band had stylish new warmup suits to set them apart. "All Ireland will know where we are from," administrative assistant Rose Johnson told the Omaha World Herald.
A marching band's front ensemble, often called a "pit," is composed of musicians who do not march with their instruments. Pits may include marimbas and other mallet percussion, timpani, bass drums, tam tams, amplified (electric) instruments, and smaller percussion instruments like tambourines, cowbells, and splash cymbals.
The band was no stranger to glockenspiels and large drums, two lyres and the five foot drum "Big Bertha" having been added to the band in 1932, but the use of that instrumentation had fallen out of use by the end of the 20th century. In 1999, with the attention of the assistant director at the time, Anthony Falcone, a front ensemble was added to the Cornhusker Marching Band which reincorporated those instruments and many more to augment the band's musical versatility.
In 1999, the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications station released a documentary on the marching band which gave viewers a window into the audition process, rigorous rehearsals, and "rare audio and video highlights of band performances."
In 2005, the reality show "Tommy Lee Goes to College" featuring rock band Mötley Crüe's drummer Tommy Lee premiered. The show was filmed in 2004 in cooperation with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Cornhusker Marching Band and band staff were featured in the show when Lee "auditioned" for the drumline.
After years of away trips accompanied by multiple trucks to transport all of the band's equipment and instruments, the band purchased a trailer capable of carrying everything, including all of the uniforms. With a beautiful exterior, the trailer also serves as an advertisement. Doug Bush, Assistant Director of Bands, remarked "It really serves a dual purpose, we haul our equipment inside, but the outside is a 'billboard' for the UNL Band Program." In 2016, the trailer was updated with a new exterior.