Marching Illini ignite fan spirit in Cali pep rally


Jonathan Bonaguro

Members of the Illinois Marching Illini shout during the band’s performance at a pregame pep rally for the Redbox Bowl on Sunday Dec. 29 in San Francisco. Photo by Jonathan Bonaguro.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

There was something in the air Sunday morning, just one day before the Redbox Bowl. In the Embarcadero Plaza, just outside of the Hyatt Regency of San Francisco, in an area all but foreign to the Illini up until this point, noises familiar to any Illini faithful could be heard.

The Golden Gate Bridge is just a short drive away. The iconic Alcatraz prison, which was a trip highlight for Illini Football, floated off in the distance waiting for its next passengers. The San Francisco port sat still in the forefront, while the Oakland Bay Bridge towered silently in the background.

 It’s 11:00 a.m. Amidst the cold breeze from the waterfront and the drizzling, visitors wearing orange, blue, navy or yellow could be seen congregating around the Plaza. As the morning turns to afternoon, that something in the air manifests in physical form.

First, a sea of navy blue from the San Francisco natives cheering “Go Bears!” Any passerby would be remiss to say it didn’t feel like a home-away-from-home environment for Berkeley fans, whose campus sits less than half an hour away from the plaza.

As the clock strikes noon, the small group of intermingling fans has turned into a full-blown crowd. A mixed storm, like the hot and cold winds of a tornado, Bears, and Illini faithful gradually surrounded the Plaza in a hurricane-like swarm.

At the eye of this mighty storm of students, fans, families, and alumni, a smaller more unified crowd falls into formation. With the swiftest stroke, its lone composer gives the signal. The brass meets the lips of its masters, and finally, tunes could be heard across the hotel.

The storm settles, standing frozen at attention akin to the corresponding Berkeley Marching band playing. A small path in the giant crowd peters out, and filling its trenches come their opponent. After hours of delay and late flights, the rest of Littyville’s Marching favorites slipped through the cracks and filled the rest of the eye. From a bird’s eye view, it was a yin and yang of Illinois and Berkeley, surrounded by that same storm of fans crashing in from all sides.

Let the battle of the bands begin.

Up first, the Marching Bears. California started the rally off with several pop hits. Eiffel 65’s viral classic “I’m Blue” transitions into Cascada’s “Every time We Touch,” rounding off with Haddaway’s “What is Love? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)” before silencing their opening act.

“I don’t need to remind you this is Bear territory!” California’s composer Matthew Sadowski chants. Rattling off their wins against Stanford, UCLA and UC Davis, he chanted with the utmost confidence to the Bears’ fans “We don’t just run this area, we run the whole west coast!”

Sadowski was met with applause and cheers from the home crowd as they chanted back “Go Bears!”

With the crowd on their side, California rattles off two more well-known hits, Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and Journey’s “Separate Ways”.

Just as one half of the crowd simmered down, the next half began to come out in full force. What was once a balanced mix of Illini and Bears colors was flooded by a tidal wave of Orange and Blue.

The Marching Illini get into their formation, and their director Barry Houser gives the signal. Opening up with “Illinois Loyalty”, suddenly the plaza sounded less like a West Coast retreat and more like a tailgate at Memorial Stadium.

The Illini got to respond with their own hit cover, Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”, and after a few more songs, the band’s symphony was drowned out by the university’s most famous chant.

“I-L-L!” the band shouts.

“I-N-I!” the crowd shouts back.

As the crowd quieted back down, the Bears’ head coach Justin Wilcox appears and takes the stand, accompanied by defensive end Zeandae Johnson, safety Jaylinn Hawkins and center Mike Saffell.

“It’s been such a great experience to have this here locally, all of our fans will be able to come out, they’ve meant a lot to our season,” Wilcox said. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity but I think we’ve shown a lot of growth throughout that time. We’ve got a ton of respect for coach (Lovie) Smith and what they’ve built there, and it’s going to take our best game to win.”

Wilcox cedes the stage to Lovie Smith, who is accompanied by Dre Brown, Dele Harding and Kenyon Jackson.

“We the football team are so thankful to the city of San Francisco. We thank the 49ers for hosting this game against a good Cal team led by an outstanding coach.” Smith said. “Our players have worked so hard and we’ve continued to build our program. We’re just so excited for our future, and it’s being made possible by all of the support we’ve gotten. We’re not going to let you down.”

As the rally came to a close, both bands proceeded to give their encore. The Marching Illini concluded the rally with “Hail to the Orange”, and exited as the sea of Orange and Blue began to disperse. Antonio, Felicia and Jameria Woods, the family of defensive tackle Jamal Woods, were one of the many football families that traveled out with the Illini.

“This has all been so exciting, especially since Jamal was a part of the first recruiting class,” Felecia Woods said. “They’ve come a long way. We know they’re all excited about it.”


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