Classic Rivalries Spread around the Horns; A Different Competition Takes Place at Halftime at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

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Byline: ALEX ABRAMS

There is no time to wait when it comes to recruiting.

As soon as the Florida Classic between archrivals Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman College ends in mid-November, Donovan Wells looks at what kind of talent he has returning and determines his most critical needs.

Wells looks for talented players and tries to convince them to play for B-CC instead of another school.

Wells, by the way, is not a football coach. He's the band director.

"It's competitive; it's just like in athletics. We're going after talent," Wells said. "We go out and find the talent that will help out our band."

As Wells knows, being the band director at a historically black college and university (HBCU) can come with as much stress as being the head football coach. Many of the members earn scholarships, and fans of schools such as FAMU, B-CC and Edward Waters College tend to take the halftime shows as seriously as the 30 minutes of football that come before and after it.

Every band tries to outdo the competition with flashier routines, better dance steps and more precise playing. It's a far cry from the generally rigid and traditional performances done by larger, non-HBCU marching bands.

"There is no question about it, there are two contests [at an HBCU game]. One is the football and the other is the band," said Rodney Roberts, a former French horn player in FAMU's Marching 100 and the current interim executive director of the school's booster club.

Roberts saw both sides of that after last season's Florida Classic when a Wildcats fan started boasting about the 58-52 overtime victory. According to Roberts, the fan admitted, "Well, you won the halftime show, but we won the game."

The marching band rivalry will be taken seriously on Saturday at the Willie Gary Classic between EWC and Shaw University at Raines High School.

EWC band director Marques Graham has run his 90-member band through three-hour practices during the last few days to get ready for the annual classic. And, like a coach preparing for a big game, he refuses to divulge any of his game plan for fear that Shaw's band might find out.

"You know, that's a big secret," said Graham, 28, on Tuesday when asked what he had in store for Saturday's halftime show. All he would say is that EWC's dance team -- the Purple Thunder -- "might" perform.

A year ago, EWC's band carried three closed caskets onto the field at Alltel Stadium -- where the annual classic was played -- for its halftime performance. At a certain point, three drum majors emerged from the caskets and started dancing to the roar of the crowd.

"We were being kind of sarcastic, that Shaw's band had gotten so good over the years that our drum majors had literally worked themselves to death to get better," said Graham, a Jacksonville native.

Talking trash is as much a part of an HBCU band performance as the colorful costumes, current playlists and over-the-top dancing. …