Main Content

Band packing its new instruments and ‘Funk’

The Big Purple Band practices in Texas Stadium in 1971.
Abilene Christian University’s Big Purple Band has plenty of experience marching on NFL-branded turf, but it’s been a while. All that will change this weekend when the popular marching ensemble performs in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Nine times previously, the Big Purple entertained crowds at halftime of home games for the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans). The 10th time – this Saturday afternoon – will represent a new verse of a familiar tune: providing the musical talent accompanying an ACU football game. That’s when the Wildcats play the University of North Alabama at 4 p.m. in Cowboys Stadium, the second of three games featured in the inaugural Lone Star Football Festival that day.
Previous Big Purple performances during NFL games include:

  • September 21, 1986 – Texas Stadium, Dallas Cowboys vs. Atlanta Falcons
  • September 23, 1984 – Mile High Stadium, Denver Broncos vs. Kansas City Chiefs
  • November 20, 1983 – Texas Stadium, Dallas Cowboys vs. Kansas City Chiefs
  • October 2, 1977 – Texas Stadium, Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • October 24, 1976 – Texas Stadium, Dallas Cowboys vs. Chicago Bears
  • October 10, 1976 – Houston Astrodome, Houston Oilers vs. Denver Broncos
  • December 13, 1975 – Texas Stadium, Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Redskins
  • November 14, 1971 – Texas Stadium, Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles
  • October 18, 1970 – Houston Astrodome, Houston Oilers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Two of those venues – Texas Stadium in Irving and the Astrodome in Houston – have since fell to a wrecking ball. Another performance in Denver was cancelled in 1982 by the NFL player strike. This weekend’s show is in Cowboys Stadium, the gleaming home of the Dallas Cowboys, site of the most recent Super Bowl and new home of the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.
What fans will hear this Saturday is not necessarily your father’s Big Purple. Their newest show is titled “Bringin’ the Funk,” featuring music by Parliament Funkadelic; Earth Wind and Fire; and Blood, Sweat and Tears. A subsequent show this season will add a tune from the Tower of Power, according to Dr. Steven Ward (’92), director of bands and orchestra and associate professor of conducting. The Big Purple’s crowd-pleasing halftime shows in recent years have featured music from Queen, Genesis, various chart-topping Motown artists, and the Beatles.
Saturday’s performance will feature a special guest when John L. Whitwell (’65), director of bands emeritus at Michigan State University, conducts the National Anthem. Whitwell was director of bands at ACU from 1981-87. And thanks to some generous band alumni, the Big Purple will be sporting many new instruments, including its drum line, sousaphones, baritones and horns.
The Big Purple starts rehearsals each fall when Welcome Week begins for freshmen. “After leadership training, percussion auditions, color guard auditions and check-in, our first rehearsal happens on Sunday evening of the week before classes,” says Ward. “At the end of this rehearsal we have a devotional that includes a longstanding tradition of reading of I Corinthians 13, with the band singing and humming “Fairest Lord Jesus.” Doug “Fessor” Fry (’40) did this reading for many, many years. The last two years, Dr. Paul Piersall, chair of the music department, has done the reading. In 2009, in his last year as president, Dr. Royce Money (’64) was our guest.”
Among the Big Purple’s many traditions is an open-door policy: participation is open to all musically talented ACU students, and each year the band includes a large number of non-music majors who enjoy the camaraderie of the group and the opportunity to continue marching past their high school years. The Big Purple Stompin’ Grounds used to occupy a parking lot north of Edwards Hall but since the $17 million Williams Performing Arts Center opened in 2003, the band only has to walk a few steps outside its building to rehearse on the WPAC’s east lawn, which faces Judge Ely Boulevard. You know it’s football season when you hear sounds of their practice session echoing across campus during the lunch hour each autumn weekday.
Tickets to the Lone Star Football Festival are $25 for adults and $10 for students; one ticket is good for all three games Saturday (Midwestern State vs. Texas A&M-Commerce at noon, ACU vs. North Alabama at 4 p.m. and West Texas A&M vs. Texas A&M-Kingsville at 8 p.m.)  Cowboys Stadium seats between 80,000 and 110,000 for football, so there are plenty of good seats left. Tickets (which include lunch) to a pregame party in the Dr Pepper End Zone are sold out, but alumni, friends, parents and students are encouraged to stop by to visit beginning at 1:30 p.m.
Ward encourages band alumni to visit the Big Purple’s Facebook page.

The Big Purple Band performs in the Astrodome in Houston in 1976.