NORMAN — Less than two weeks from the 2013 season opener on Owen Field, Oklahoma football fans have one less problem to worry about.
“I think Bob Stoops is probably pretty happy that the quarterback controversy has taken second place,” OU Director of Bands William Wakefield said Tuesday afternoon, about an hour before acquiescing to some of the increasingly angry demands from Sooner fans and alumni outraged over changes to the marching band’s pregame routine.
After experimenting with different ideas, first-year Pride of Oklahoma Director Justin Stolarik decided to stick — at least in part — with tradition, placing the ongoing quarterback battle between junior Blake Bell and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight right back in the center of attention.
Stolarik, who replaced former Pride director Brian Britt this summer, had ruffled some feathers among fans and former Pride of Oklahoma members by planning significant changes, particularly to the Fanfare at the beginning of the pregame routine.
“I think President (David) Boren was interested in freshening up the performance,” Wakefield said. “He felt maybe the band performance had gotten a little stale. There was interest in exploring change. Sometimes you have to just do that. Sometimes you have to have a new perspective and a different voice.”
Stolarik, who spent the past four years as assistant director of bands at the University of Wisconsin, began his tenure with lots of ideas for freshening up the Pride’s pregame show, the most controversial of which was a jazzier Fanfare, which takes place just before the drum major’s signature strut down the field.
One rumor that gained steam over the past couple weeks was that the Pride of Oklahoma would play the opponent’s fight song after each game ends, a suggestion Wakefield unequivocally denied.
“That’s not gonna happen,” Wakefield said. “I can tell you that. We can be good sports without doing that.”
Other confirmed changes include playing “America the Beautiful” instead of “A Grand Old Flag” just before the national anthem is played, and adjusting how the marching band enters its interlocking “OU” formation before it exits the field.
After Stolarik’s announcement regarding the Fanfare, Wakefield said the other two changes would still be made to the pregame routine.
Some videos of early Fanfare rehearsals were shot and posted on social media sites last week, and reaction was swift and harsh.
It came in countless emails to Wakefield, Stolarik and other administrators, and in social media posts and calls to sports talk radio. A Facebook group for Pride of Oklahoma alumni exploded with angry reaction to the proposed changes.
“I think it’s caught everybody by surprise,” Wakefield said of the public outcry. “Oklahomans, by our nature, are really good people. There’s not a culture of hate here at all. It’s more, we’re proud of what we have and what Oklahoma is about. Obviously, this is a change that’s gotten a lot of people up in arms.”
He added that the video that caused much of the uproar was shot within the first few days of band practice, and that judging a performance based on one early rehearsal wasn’t fair.
“It’s a little unfortunate that the band couldn’t be in a position to have rehearsed it to fulfill the excellence we’re used to hearing from the Pride of Oklahoma,” Wakefield said. “It’s a little like Bob Stoops doesn’t want cameras to be in his football practice because maybe things aren’t ready, or you need the element of surprise.”
The current pregame routine has gone largely unchanged in the more than 30 years since legendary, longtime band director Gene Thrailkill implemented it in the 1970s.
Thrailkill, who retired 12 years ago, said he has “thoughts” about the proposed changes, but declined to elaborate on them.
“At this point, it doesn’t make a whole lot (of difference) what I think,” Thrailkill said. “I’ve been gone for 12 years. There’s gonna be changes. Sometimes they’re more dramatic than others, but anytime you bring a new person in, you expect changes.
“It hurts to see what’s happening with the kids. It’s not their fault. Unfortunately in education a lot of times, the kids are the last people to be considered. I feel sorry for them.”
Wakefield asked that fans be supportive of the band members.
“I think our students deserve our fans’ support,” Wakefield said. “I would sure hate to see a negative reaction toward the students in a university setting.
“Really, I mean there are people in Afghanistan being killed. This is not life or death. This is about entertainment, which is really important and there are high ticket prices, and an expectation for a return on that dollar that’s high, and we certainly are aware of that and we certainly wouldn’t want people to be disappointed or angry at the band.”