The Infamous "Spotted Owl
Politics and college football crossed paths in 1992, when mutiny-minded players at both South Carolina and Memphis State literally "rocked the vote" – and tried voting out their respective head coaches at midseason.
It was two years earlier, however, that a very sensitive political issue (at least in the Pacific Northwest) became the targeted subject of an infamous Stanford Band halftime show. Duck feathers were ruffled and the environmentally-related "buzzword" in question, the "spotted owl", was deemed appropriate fodder for the LJUMB, whose tease-intended performance earned them a one-game suspension by university officials back on October 30, 1990.
At issue behind the band's suspension was an on-field halftime show spotlighting the endangered "spotted owl", a memorable and provocative musical performance that had taken place three days earlier at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. The band lampooned the then-raging debate involving passionately protective environmentalists and a endangered nocturnal avian species against the Northwest's similarly endangered logging industry.
According to an article by Andy Stahl, Executive Director of FSEEE (Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics), the owl issue had its genesis a full decade earlier: "The Forest Service's first spotted owl protection plan, circa 1980, called for protecting 500 pairs of owls each with 1,000 acres of old-growth forest, these habitat circles to be spaced in a grid-like pattern across the owl's range from the Canadian border to the Bay Area. The balance of the owl's habitat would be logged." After multiple lawsuits, the geographic scope of the protection area actually was increased substantially in subsequent years.
In retrospect, it is easy to see why Oregonians were peeved. It was a devastating time for thousands of laid-off workers. Just in 1990 alone, more than 50 mills closed in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon was not up for owl jokes.
Never resisting the temptation to peck away at an open wound, the LSJUMB went for the jugular. The simmering aftermath of the band's outrageous expression of opinion would result in the redcoats being kept away from the season's final home game against Washington State on November 3, 1990, which by the way Stanford won to spark a three-game winning streak to finish the 1990 season on an up-note and set the stage for the Aloha Bowl season to follow.
Depending on a person's personal views, the controversy either was appalling or overblown. The actual show in question likened green activists to pot-growers high on using owl habitats as convenient hiding spots for their contraband crops. The Band's formation became an owl's head, and then a chainsaw. The song catalog that day featured Boz Scagg's "It's Over," in addition to "I'm a Lumberjack" of Monty Python fame. Then came The Tubes' classic, chant-able rock-anthem "White Punks on Dope."
When it was over, the sold-out and semi-stunned Autzen Stadium crowd let loose with some very passionate boos – the kind that follow self-impressed Californians who dare to push their political satire on proud Northwesterners. Had the Ducks not been leading 21-0 at the half, there could have been some literal band-bashing.
''It was an embarrassment to the athletic department," Jim Brungard, Stanford 's assistant athletic director (and former ticket director for the USFL's Denver Gold) told the San Jose Mercury News. "Their total insensitivity and disrespect to the Oregon community - they didn't use good judgment in their show."
A long history of irreverent gameday stunts by the Leland Stanford University Marching Band [LSJUMB] includes everything from the band paying tribute to the death of Mao to the parent-pleasing time in 1986 when band members urinated on the Stanford Stadium field at halftime. (Note: The incident didn't actually take place on the field - or at halftime. It was two guys, on a patch of grass across the track from the field, in a mostly-empty stadium after the game, but why ruin a great legend?) By 1990, it was already the Stanford athletic department's set policy to "pre-approve" all home game routines and themes. Road trips remained laissez-faire.
"Halftime shows at away games had never presented any problems before," said Athletic Department official Cheryl Levick (now the Athletic Director at Georgia State) at the time.
Opinions of spotted owls were strong in Oregon, where 25,000 logging jobs disappeared between 1979 and 1982, causing considerable hardship to Oregonians. Hard to believe now, but there was a time when some considered the state too economically depressed to sustain a major college football power.
The Ducks emerged from their long-dormant spell with back-to-back bowl berths starting in 1989. Standout efforts by Tommy Vardell and Ed McCaffrey for Stanford in 1990 had come against a brutal schedule. The tilt at Oregon was one of eight meetings against bowl-bound teams that season. The "Stun-ford" upset at No. 1 Notre Dame, the Cardinal's first road win in three years, was a huge shocker.
But a little more than three weeks later, the mood surrounding the Cardinal was once again dim. The negative publicity following the owl controversy surrounded a 2-5 team coming off its third-straight loss. In a game in which it eventually prevailed 31-0, Oregon smoked the Cardinal in the opening half.
Out to brighten the mood came the notorious LSJUMB. Props included a pair of giant paper owl eyes held aloft by the Stanford Dollies. The band announcer's script, read over the stadium PA, was as follows:
"Trees and spotted owls are disappearing like crazy, and everybody wants to know why…Mr. Spotted Owl ! Mr. Spotted Owl! Your environment has been destroyed; your home is now a roll of Brawny, and your family has flown the coop!"
The not-so subversive message took further form in the band's spell-outs. "OWL" was followed by "AWOL."
Next came the chainsaw formation, a rotating blade symbolized by trombonists running around in an oval ("Artfully executed," band manager LindaKay Brown was quoted at the time as saying). [Note: Ms. Brown is now Director of Corporate Sponsorships for the San Francisco Symphony!)
The word "HOOT" then morphed into "MOOT" and "SPOT" became "POT", accompanied by the band announcer posing the question: ''Does marijuana really help cure glaucoma? Some doctors think so. Some people don't care. Some may front certain causes in order to protect their backyard cash crop. This puts a little twist on Ben Franklin's saying: 'Just remember kids, an owl a day keeps the DEA away.'"
Oregon athletic director Bill Byrne (today the Athletic Director at Texas A&M) personally wrote to his Stanford counterpart Alan Cummings, requesting that Stanford "leave the band at home" for its return meeting in 1991. Not until 2001 would the somewhat rehabilitated and paroled LSJUMB make its return appearance to the oh-so-sensitive confines of Autzen.
The Infamous "Spotted Owl" Show on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4hKhNSR9AWE
Do you have a "premium" subscription to The Bootleg? If not, then you are seriously missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest, baddest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)! At The Bootleg, "WE WRITE!"