Six hours before kickoff, Cougar Marching Band takes the field for one final rehearsal. After warming up in the clear but crisp 40-degree weather, they run through the halftime and pregame shows. Then, from the elevated podium at the 50-yard line, the leader of the band instructs his charges to relax and huddle.
They’re preparing for the last home football game of the 2023 season, and the energy is electric. Jon Sweet, director of the Cougar Marching Band, amplifies the mood even more, telling the 200-some students gathered around him, “You sound great. You look great. It’s going to be a great day for football. Whether the score is in our favor or not, the band will win.”
Cougar Marching Band is a Washington State University tradition, providing the pomp and the circumstance, a steady beat, high bar, and sense of pride. The band revs up the crowd, motivates the athletes, and plays the soundtrack of the college experience for students and alumni alike, often sending shivers up spines, and, sometimes, bringing tears to eyes.
This academic year, the band has a new director whose plans include growing the program, enhancing the student experience, and campaigning for new uniforms as well as establishing a fund to maintain them.
“To me, the marching band is the heartbeat of the university,” says Sweet, who joined WSU on June 1 as associate professor and director of Symphonic Band and athletic bands, including the Cougar Marching Band. “It’s the heart and soul of what we do. It’s instrumental in the preservation of memory and history.”
“Anytime we play the Fight Song, there’s a certain emotion that comes with it,” Sweet says. “You can’t talk with people about the college experience, especially the college football experience, without the inclusion of the marching band and all the pageantry arts, dance, and cheer. When all those things are firing, it makes for an environment that’s different than you can get anywhere else.”
In addition to the “Washington State Fight Song,” Sweet is a fan of rock-and-roll and music from movies—and it shows in the halftime performances he designs. During his first season with Cougar Marching Band, halftime shows have featured songs from the Shrek films, Star Trek, and 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as Elton John’s “Rocket Man” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“Crowds like things they recognize,” Sweet says. “They like fast, and they like loud. I also like a range of years and styles so that the band can resonate with more people over the course of the season. I want to make sure that our programming covers a broad spectrum.”
Sweet doesn’t only write music and formations for Cougar Marching Band; through his company, Sweet Marching, he creates routines for marching bands nationwide. “Jon has a keen sense of detail,” says Keri McCarthy, director of the School of Music and a professor of oboe and music history. “He is one of the top drill writers in the country. His shows are known and watched millions of times.”
While that’s impressive, it’s not what stood out most to McCarthy during his interview for the directorship. It was Sweet saying “he wanted to see our students leaving the field with huge smiles on their faces after every game and that student experience was the most important part of marching band for him—and I entirely agree,” McCarthy says. “The marching band is the loudest motivator for the team and for the crowd. They are ambassadors for the university, and what they do is extraordinary. The amount of music and the amount of drill that they learn each season is monumental. It’s part of what bonds them so closely.”
Says Samuel Case Taylor, a senior from Lacey who’s played trumpet in the marching band all four years at WSU, “I could have easily quit marching band to focus on my career and school, but I chose to stay in because it has really shaped my college experience.”
Taylor studies multimedia journalism, lives with four other marching band trumpet players, and also serves as managing editor of the Daily Evergreen and a producer on a sports recap show on Cable 8. “The people I have met through band are the most genuine people,” he says. “They are people you can rely on in good times and in bad. The friendships run deep.”
Two and a half hours before kickoff, Cougar Marching Band takes the field for one final rehearsal. After warming up in the clear but crisp 40-degree weather, they run through the halftime and pregame shows. Then, from the elevated podium at the 50-yard line, the leader of the band instructs his charges to relax and huddle.
Cougar Marching Band welcomes athletes to campus through Cougar Prowl, pumping up players and fans. It’s 37 degrees and already dark when band members line both sides of the pathway to the Hollingbery Fieldhouse, forming a tunnel for players to parade though, before the November 17, 2023, game against Colorado. While waiting for the athletes’ arrival, Sweet walks down both sides of the tunnel himself, fist-bumping each band member.
“I want everyone in Cougar Marching Band to have a positive experience,” he says. “When that happens, we’re going to get bigger. It’s natural.”
He’s added more pictures and animations to halftime performances and included “America the Beautiful” as a transition to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the pregame show. And Facebook fans are taking note. “Props to the new director and the band,” one wrote on a September 10, 2023, post featuring the drum major cam. “I loved seeing the Cougar head logo in pregame, very cool! Keep up the good work!” Others simply note, “Looking sharp!” and “Great show!” or “Great sound!”
Behind the scenes, Sweet has introduced smartphone apps to help students learn everything from music to visuals. He’s also launched a fundraising campaign. “Our uniforms are about 10 years old, and they are splitting at the seams,” McCarthy notes. “They are not the right sizes. And we don’t have enough of them.”
The marching band added some 40 members this academic year, totaling just over 200 in all. Sweet wants to expand to 250, then 300. “If we maintain a good rate of retention and have over 100 incoming members every year, we’ll knock that out real soon,” he says.
From Cougar Prowl, the band marches on, making a loop around the RV lot on Stadium Way and pausing at each corner to give a short performance. At each of the four stops, fans gather to watch, take photos and videos, and cheer: “The best in the West!” and “Go Cougs!”
Next stop: Cougville on Rogers Field, where the band gives an even longer performance. “It’s all about getting the energy up,” Sweet says. “Everything we’re doing is getting the fans into the experience.”
His mottos: “The way we do anything is the way we do everything,” and “Excellence always and all ways.”
Taylor explains, “We have a high standard of achievement. Our worst rehearsal is our best performance. You need to focus day in and day out and work through your share of the band’s performance in order for the band to perform well. It can be pretty intense.”
But, he says, “It’s a lot of fun. It’s this continuous loop of putting in a high amount of effort and being rewarded through the reception we get from the crowd, including alumni and students.” He encourages fans to watch the halftime show. “Grab a beer and hot dog some other time,” Taylor says. “Stay. You won’t regret it.”
Cougar Marching Band, says drum major Ashley Swanson, is all about “bringing joy on game day. To be able to share music with so many people—it’s exhilarating.”
The fourth-year band member and music education graduate student from Olympia graduates this spring and won’t be around to wear the new uniforms. Her last season, “We had to buy extra fabric for some of them to just pin together. It doesn’t show what we want to show. We’re ‘The Best in the West,’ and we want to show that.”
Moments before halftime, band members stream from their section in the west end zone, the Crimzone, to prepare to take to the field. Sweet, outfitted in a crimson Buffalo check plaid blazer and bowtie, waits for them at bottom of the stands, again fist-bumping students as they file past him.
Sweet has a penchant for bowties. He owns more than 100 of them and wears a different one to each home football game during his first season. He also loves Lego, estimating he has some 500 sets—all of which had to be broken down and boxed for his move west last spring from his previous post at Purdue University. He shares these fun facts with his students—“my kids,” he calls them.
“The way he carries himself sets an example for the rest of the ensemble that we are all trying to achieve. If he tires, he never shows it,” says drum major Walter Pittson, a fifth-year band member and music education graduate student who dreams of becoming a high school marching band director in his hometown of Arlington. Sweet’s demeanor, attitude, and sense of camaraderie he’s instilled in Cougar Marching Band have impressed him. “I hope to carry that into my own band someday,” he says.
Video: Catch the Cougar Marching Band spirit (A football gameday in the life of the band)
Cougar Marching Band memories from band alumni
Voices of Cougar Marching Band students: The band life in their own words
Meet Jon Sweet: The new director of Cougar Marching Band hopes to grow the program and enhance the student experience
More about the Cougar Marching Band
“Anybody who knows me knows I’m the world’s biggest marching band nerd”
(Daily Evergreen, September 25, 2023)