When Navy plays Rice on Nov. 19, the two schools’ cultures will clash as violently as their football teams. At the Annapolis matchup, military discipline will grapple with loopy self-determination; good posture will struggle against bad; coolheaded order will contend with puckish chaos. And that’s just at halftime.
Earlier this month, a representative of the U.S. Naval Academy seemed to threaten the hallowed traditions of Rice University’s Marching Owl Band, better known as “the MOB.” At a typical Rice show, an announcer reads a waggish script over the stadium’s PA system as band members scramble from one silly formation to the next, pausing to blast pop standards. (Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Virginia adhere to the same “scatter band” format.) When the jokes are bad, the effect is irredeemably geeky; when they’re good, the goofball humor can salve a fan’s broken heart. A recent show focused on John Kennedy’s secret plan to put a band on the moon. “Why do we do these things?” intoned the announcer. “Why does Rice beat Texas? Not because it is easy, but because we can.”
In early December, Rice called Navy to arrange the niggling details of the MOB’s visit to the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium—a long bus ride from Rice’s Houston campus. Rice wanted a map of the academy, instructions about bus parking, and so on. According to Melissa Martinez, the MOB’s program coordinator, universities usually release such information as a matter of common courtesy, with no strings attached. But Beth Shumway, Navy’s director of sports marketing, instead chose to hold those trivial facts hostage—to be released only after the MOB faxed her a second-by-second “timeline” for its six-minute show.
MOBsters regard their scripts as sacred and secret, and saw in the request an unprecedented attempt to censor any Tailhook jibes or other Navy-seeking missiles. Shumway’s demand struck the band as inappropriate, unnecessary, and downright rude. At a heated band meeting, one scriptwriter suggested faxing Navy a copy of the First Amendment. (Cooler heads prevailed, and the band didn’t.) Another bandmember proposed leaking the story to the Washington media. (Hotter heads prevailed, and the band did.)
Navy’s Shumway claims that the MOB is “being oversensitive.” She explains that she choreographs Navy’s halftimes meticulously; she says she demands timelines from all marching bands and routinely withholds logistical details until she receives their faxes. Shumway explains that her interest is to “preserve the football game unimpeded”—not to cut Rice’s jokes. “But maybe I need to be sensitive to that,” she says darkly, suddenly worried that the MOB wouldn’t complain unless it had something worth censoring.
As of the Monday before the game, Rice and Navy seemed to have overcome the cultural clash. MOB scriptwriters resigned themselves to relinquishing a copy of their cherished script, though they planned to do so only at the last minute. The MOB obtained a campus map without Shumway’s help, and blithely assumed that the bus drivers could find someplace in all of Annapolis to park.
Scriptwriter John Gladu admits that he and other MOB members considered faxing Navy a fake script; they decided against the “switcheroonie” on the grounds that Shumway might require the MOB to use one of Navy’s own announcers. As of Monday, Gladu planned to play by the rules, hoping that Navy won’t deprive him of his funniest lines.
Good jokes, he figures, are the best revenge.