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HBCU Bands

North Carolina A&T and Bethune-Cookman prove why the bands top the rankings

The preparation before each game allows the bands to bring their A-game

A little before noon in Greensboro, North Carolina, the preparation had begun.

Tailgating fans with portable grills in tow were ready to showcase their skills before the main event. Inside Aggie Stadium, the undefeated North Carolina A&T State University football team warmed up ahead of kickoff against the 3-3 Bethune-Cookman University Wildcats. In the stands, Bethune-Cookman’s band had already begun playing to the few attendees who showed up early to snag the best seats.

Around the corner, North Carolina A&T’s prized Blue and Gold Marching Machine was preparing, too.

The Bethune-Cookman University Marching Wildcats would be the first band the Machine had faced all year, and was especially excited to kick off the second half of the season with the band visiting on their home turf. The Marching Wildcats, powerful in musical strength and numbers, had entered their territory with a confidence that radiated through every note. But the Machine had the advantage of a home crowd that gave them a warm welcome before even entering the stadium.

They weren’t worried.

The Machine had spent weeks preparing for the season. During football season, hours are spent in band rooms and on practice fields perfecting each note, each position and each step. From there, the band heads back to the band room to refine the rest of the music that will be played throughout the game and after, during the highly anticipated 5th Quarter.

“I always tell them, musicality first. Always play your best. Bring a lot of energy to the halftime shows, but the No. 1 thing is the musicality,” said Thomas Warren, North Carolina A&T’s assistant director of bands. “We want them to play their best, we want them to march their best and we definitely push it before we come out here. They’re entertainers. Every weekend they come out here, they’re entertainment.”

Thirty minutes before kickoff, the Machine marched around the stadium to the side entrance as fans watched and recorded. Members, dressed in their pristine blue, gold and white uniforms and marching proudly to their positions let everyone in attendance know exactly what they had come for: To show off and show out.

At halftime, both bands came armed with a blend of old school classics and Top 40 selections to set the tone for the day’s sets, from Bell Biv Devoe’s 1990 — and still popular — hit Poison to Wild Thoughts, a DJ Khaled-produced banger that served as the summer’s unofficial anthem.

There’s a method to picking what will be played at games. For Bethune-Cookman’s director of bands Donovan Wells, trust lies with the students.

“The students have a stake in what we do,” Wells said. “I can pick all the music to satisfy Donovan Wells, and the audience might be bored to death. I listen to all of it and the kids will tell us it’s a hot song, and I have to believe them. We’re able to get a variety of music. We don’t want to play one vein of music all the time, and we don’t.”

On Bethune-Cookman’s side, showing off and showing out sentiments were the same. The band left Daytona Beach, Florida, at midnight to make the trek to North Carolina. The band was functioning on limited sleep, and adrenaline kept it focused. Especially when it came down to the brief drumline battle on the sidelines shortly after halftime.

On the field, the Aggies would remain undefeated after a game-changing touchdown gave North Carolina A&T a 24-20 lead that would ultimately serve as the game’s final score.

In the stands, the crisp and loud sound of the Marching Wildcats rang out into the emptying stadium. A smaller group who had stayed until the end of the 5th quarter watched as band members cleared their seats, giving them compliments as they went to their bus.

In black college football, winning the battle in the stands is just as important as winning on the field. Depending on whom you ask, the battle of the bands is the only win or loss that counts.

And with that comes an immense amount of pressure.

“We want to make sure that our football team is hyped,” said Warren. “It’s crucial, especially with a game like this.”

With The ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings, the competition has increased. In the first band rankings of the season, released earlier this month, Bethune-Cookman impressed the judges overall to earn a No. 1 ranking. North Carolina A&T was two spots behind at No. 3. Southern University is the only band that separated the two schools.

In the end, rankings and which bands are lower or higher in the ratings don’t matter as much as the standards the bands set for themselves.

“The students are creative, they’re smart, talented and they make the machine run,” Wells said. “I just have to make sure it stays on the road. It’s easy to stay humble because if I didn’t stay humble, I’d be taking credit for something I didn’t do. I’m a fan on the sidelines. Everything that happens out there, that’s the students. I’m just on the sidelines.”

So who won the battle? It depends on whom you ask.

Check out The Undefeated’s next round of rankings this week at TheUndefeated.com.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.