Keeping the Music Alive: Alumni group keeps Tiger Band open for all students


Football games in Memorial Stadium are considered by many to be the epitome of the college football experience: starting with “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football” and ending with the players and coaches linking arms and singing the Clemson alma mater with tens of thousands of students, alumni and fans. It never fails to be an electrifying three or four hours, but there is one element that holds it all together from beginning to end and that is the exuberant music of the Clemson Tiger Band.

Most people will never know what it’s like to march onto the Memorial Stadium field at the beginning of a football game, perform a rousing halftime show for 80,000 people, or lead a parade through legions of cheering fans. The Clemson University Tiger Band Association (CUTBA) is a group of alumni who know how life-changing those experiences are — and who want to ensure those core memories continue to be forged for Tiger Band members for generations to come.

Larry Sloan ’74 said some of his most cherished memories are from his time as a trumpeter in Tiger Band. At the time, Clemson did not have a powerhouse football team like they do today, but the excitement of playing in front of thousands of cheering fans was no less thrilling.

“It was the best time of my life.”

Sloan said the grueling practices off the field and comradery on the field forged friendships that have lasted to this day and instilled a work ethic that served him well in his professional career.

“After I graduated, I went into the business world and did a lot of recruiting on college campuses. It was then I realized what Tiger Band had truly done for me,” he said. “It teaches you teamwork, responsibility, to be on time – all of these great principles.”

CUTBA founding members Keith Snelgrove, Tony Stapleton and Larry Sloan in Patrick Square earlier this year.

Today, director of bands Mark Spede and associate director of bands Tim Hurlburt create that same atmosphere of integrity, responsibility and teamwork.

“Culture is huge for us because Clemson is a relatively small school,” said Spede, noting that Clemson’s peer institutions like the Ohio State, the Alabama, the Oklahoma have much larger student bodies that they can draw their band members from. For instance, Clemson has about 21,000 undergraduates compared to Alabama’s 32,000.

“The typical band size for a university our size is about 200 to 225 and we’re putting 350 out there,” said Spede. “The only reason we can do that is because of our culture. Something important that people need to understand is that these students are not joining the band because they’re getting anything from the University.”

Keith Snelgrove ’77, who also played trumpet in the band, echoed Sloan’s sentiment and pointed out most Tiger Band members are not Performing Arts majors, so the musicians in Tiger Band dedicate the considerable time and effort it takes to be in the band because they want to, not because they’re required to.

Snelgrove, who had never been in a band or even stepped onto a football field before coming the Clemson, shared a memory from his time in Tiger Band that he says changed his life.

The Clemson University Tiger Band sousaphone section rehearses as the sun sets on the Tiger Band practice field.

“The music was ‘Army of the Nile,’ [A march composed by Kenneth J. Alford at the beginning of WWII] that’s how vivid this memory is,” said Snelgrove. “I was so nervous. It was the first game I played in and there were a lot of people in front of me. I got my cues off the person right in front of me – when he turned, I had to turn.”

The band marched out onto the field in perfect formation and began executing its routine. Snelgrove kept his place in line, diligently staying within his rank while playing the song and waiting for the player in front of him to execute a sharp left face which he would follow. But when the time came, his leader kept going straight.

“I’m like, what do I do?” said Snelgrove. “I only had a second to decide but it felt like a year. I said, well, my music is marked, here I go. And I turned. They videotaped the show, and all I can tell you is my rank, and all the other ranks were going one way, and that one guy was going the other. He was wrong. The lesson is: You don’t necessarily want to rely upon the person in front of you. No matter what pressure you’re under – if you’re a rookie or a veteran – know what you’re supposed to do and be confident enough to do it.”

Tony Stapleton ’76, yet another trumpeter, put the impact being in the band had on his life even more succinctly:

“I’m convinced that if I hadn’t been in Tiger Band, I would have never graduated Clemson,” he said. “I grew up in a very small town. I remember going to play Georgia Tech and marveling that there were lights over the highway. So, academically it was a struggle for me at first. I wasn’t ready for all of it. I had some things happen in my personal life and I considered dropping out – but being in that band, having a purpose, being around all those close friends, really helped guide me through.”

The sun sets as members of Central Spirit and Tiger Band rehearse in preparation for the ACC Championship game against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels under the guidance of Director Mark Spede and assistant director Tim Hurlburt, Nov. 30, 2022.

In 1977 Sloan, Snelgrove and Stapleton along with Jeff Tisdale ’65 and Frank Johnson ’66 founded CUTBA to raise scholarships for future Tiger Band students, keep Tiger Band alumni informed about current band activities and enhance the student experience for current Tiger Band members. Today, the organization boasts some 400 members who share the unique bond of being veterans of Tiger Band.

On Saturday, August 26 more than 160 Tiger Band alumni and family members gathered for a reunion at the Palmetto Event Center in Pendleton. Former players from decades past, from the 1960’s to the present, were in attendance. Speakers included Spede, former band director Rick Goodstein, and University historian Otis Pickett, who spoke of some of the notable events from the band’s history including playing for President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and during the halftime show of the football game between the Baltimore Colts and the Minnesota Vikings in 1964.

Director of bands Mark Spede addresses Tiger Band alumni during their reunion in the Palmetto Event Center in Pendleton, SC, Aug. 26, 2023.

The atmosphere at the event was warm and raucous, like a family reunion, with lots of hugging at the entrance and good-natured ribbing and laughter filling every corner of the room – proof of the permanent bonds formed between members of the band.

“Tiger Band musicians still bond for life, especially during band camp when we’re going ten, twelve hours a day,” said Spede. “It’s brutal, it’s hot, it’s uncomfortable, and they must push through their own mental hurdles. The standard of excellence is high. The payoff is on game day when you get to perform in front of 80,000 people.”

CUTBA’s goal is to make it so any student can be a part of the Tiger Band family at no cost. The organization funds items such as hats, shirts and shoes that, in the past, band members had to pay for out of pocket. In addition, CUTBA has established three individual endowments that fund scholarships for select Tiger Band recruits and initiate projects to support band members and their families, including a “Welcome to Campus” ice cream social for incoming Tiger Band members, breakfast before noon home games and annual awards. CUTBA also helped fund the John H. Butler and Bruce F. Cook Tiger Band Plaza beside the band’s practice field.

“CUTBA is one of the oldest outside organizations on campus and they are huge supporters of us,” said Spede. “When I got here it cost money to join Tiger Band. My goal was always to get to the point where it didn’t cost any money, so there would be no financial barrier for somebody that’s coming in from a background where they didn’t have a lot of money. We don’t want to leave those students behind – if they want to play in the band, they should be able to. They don’t have to spend a dime now and that’s thanks to CUTBA.”

Tiger Band alumni reunion, Aug. 26.