Like Alabama football, Million Dollar Band drum majors eat pressure for breakfast

Bennett Durando
The Tuscaloosa News

INDIANAPOLIS — Drummers broke their drum heads, they were beating on them so hard. Someone in the marching band section smashed a chair. Everyone was jumping and ripping off their uniform clips.

The Million Dollar Band is supposed to count off the fight song immediately after an Alabama football win. The delay was forgivable after Tua Tagovailoa’s championship-winning pass to DeVonta Smith in January 2018. It broke Georgia hearts and Alabama equipment.

In the middle of that chaotic euphoria, a freshman trumpet player named John Schumacher thought to himself: “That will never happen again.” 

Four years later, Alabama has returned to the College Football Playoff three times, captured another championship and has a chance to win it all again Monday (7 p.m., ESPN) at Lucas Oil Stadium. John Schumacher’s five-year Million Dollar Band career will end the same way it started — an Alabama vs. Georgia championship — but this time he’ll be conducting. It’s one last ride for Alabama’s drum majors, who have witnessed the passing of time and the rotation of popular music selections.

When the College Football Playoff era began, band director Kenneth Ozzello remembers playing Imagine Dragons music. This year, the setlist includes Olivia Rodrigo and Dua Lipa.

One constant remains: Alabama’s dominance.

“I didn’t really care for football or sports, period, when I got here,” senior Izzy Crumpton said. “Now I really love it all. Good football always makes a good band memory.”

And like Alabama’s football players, the drum majors are subjected to intense pressure. The band’s goal is to play something after every play of every game. There’s a tight window to accomplish that, especially when an offense is up-tempo. Ozzello is not the micromanaging type; he gives the student conductors freedom. They understand that when the center puts his hand on the ball, the band cannot be playing. They’re responsible for timely cutoffs.

They become masters of game management, like a coach. While standing on the ladder, a drum major’s head swivels between the game and the band.

“You have to be constantly looking: Each song we play has a prescribed situation, where you have to call that song,” Crumpton said. “You’re constantly going, ‘OK, if we get the first down, we’re going to play this. If we don’t get the first down, we’re going to play this.’”

Schumacher, Crumpton, Caleigh Studer and Noah Bagwell are masters of their craft by now. And they have grown to savor even the stressful moments, as a chunk of their college experience was foiled by COVID-19. No field performances during Alabama’s championship run in 2020. Only small portions of the band were allowed at games. When all 400 rehearsed together for the first time since 2019, “this is kind of cheesy,” Schumacher said, “but it was electric.”

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The drum majors anticipated a less-than-compelling season. It was supposed to be a rebuild. But they enjoyed the usual traditions, such as the unique experience in which Alabama coach Nick Saban invites the band’s seniors to the practice facility to teach Alabama’s football freshmen, transfers and new coaches the fight song.

This season, an older new support staffer in the back wasn’t singing. Saban pulled him to the front.

“‘It’s not just them, it’s you,’” Schumacher recalls Saban saying. “‘Get your butt up here and sing the fight song.’”

The head coach, on the other hand, claps along but doesn’t sing. 

The season was more of a rollercoaster than the band expected. After Texas A&M stunned Alabama and stormed Kyle Field, the band had a late-night flight home. Schumacher is a second-generation member of the band. His dad was in tears after the loss. Studer is from Texas with a family of A&M fans who let her hear it. It was the quietest flight of the last few years, only rivaled by the one after Clemson’s championship game rout in 2019.

Then the Iron Bowl became a favorite memory for the seniors, who had never experienced a win at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium — a venue where Alabama natives such as Crumpton and Schumacher are “looking into the eyes of people we went to high school with,” Schumacher said.

The band was in low spirits while Alabama trailed 10-3 in the fourth quarter. Students weren’t used to their team playing from behind, and even as the game stretched four overtimes, they complained of tired lips. After so much winning over the years, it was a chance for the drum majors to flex their leadership muscles.

"It's nerve-racking for us, too," Studer said. "It was really a surprise. I thought we were going to lose. Everyone thought we were going to lose."

Alabama found a way, sparing the drum majors of watching a third straight Jordan-Hare uproar. Alabama found a way to Indianapolis.

“They always exceed expectations,” Schumacher said. “But pretty much every time we’ve lost, fans storm the field. We’ve gotten used to it. You can’t hurt me anymore.”

Only Georgia can do that now. The championship game is a bittersweet finale for Million Dollar Band seniors, who become some of Alabama football's most loyal fans. Schumacher is one of the last students still around to have witnessed the “Tua game” in 2017.

“Greatest day of my life,” he calls it.

He’ll be at the conductor’s stand for the fourth quarter Monday, hoping the ending will be just as sweet as the beginning.