Watching the throne
Spartan Marching Band stands guard over iconic statue in run up to U-M game
As the temperature continued to fall toward freezing Monday night, members of the Spartan Marching Band who guarded the bronze Sparty statue found themselves outnumbered.
Twenty Michigan fans dressed in maize and blue hockey jerseys warily approached the intersection of Kalamazoo Street and Chestnut Avenue, and were met by half as many green and white varsity jackets.
Two of the Michigan fans asked permission for a group photo with Sparty. Skeptically, the band members said yes.
What followed was a haze of fists beating on bronze, and what one band member perceived to be a U-M fan wielding a dildo. Johnny Spirit came to the rescue, shoving the assailants away. The pack of Wolverines scampered off into the night.
Like Spartan warriors from the movie “300,” the musicians stood tall. There would be no spray painting tonight.
Nights like Monday, where students sat through nearly below-freezing temperatures to protect the statue from any wrongdoing, make up the Spartan Marching Band’s annual event, known as Sparty Watch.
Dating back as early as the 1970s, Sparty Watch is the annual weeklong event preceeding the MSU-U-M football weekend where members of the Spartan Marching Band gather to protect Sparty throughout the night.
The vigil is perhaps the greatest representation of the fierce rivalry between the two schools, aiming to guard against Wolverines who have looked to tarnish the iconic landmark that represents more than 49,000 students and countless alumni who identify as Spartans.
Each night, there are planned events involving anything from football head coach Mark Dantonio and the team bringing the watchers pizza to a live DJ dance-off.
“We get a lot of band members to come out here to guard him,” said Becca Imthurn, history education senior and MSU Marching Band member. “Basically, the general idea is to hang out by Sparty, make sure there is no vandalism, (and) there are a few of us that spend the night every year.”
Since its origin, Sparty Watch has transformed into more than simply preventing vandalism during the rivalry-fueled week, with events bringing in hundreds of band members on some nights.
“In the beginning, protecting Sparty was making sure there wasn’t any vandalism, but it has become more than just security,” MSU Alumni Association Executive Director Scott Westerman said. “It became something that alumni talk about even after graduating from MSU.”
The annual watch is organized by the band-related fraternities, Tau Beta Sigma and Kappa Kappa Psi, starting on either Saturday or Sunday night the week before the MSU-U-M football game, with the date varying from year to year.
This year’s Sparty Watch had a different flavor than past years because it fell on Halloween week, said Tori Whiting, international relations junior and one of the four chairmen who plans Sparty Watch.
Monday night consisted of a costume contest, Dantonio and the team brought pizza Tuesday night, and a live DJ will perform Wednesday night as part of the dance party. Halloween games will occur on Thursday.
There also is a planned schedule for when each instrument section stands guard, guaranteeing that there always is someone on Sparty duty, said Quinton Merrill, fisheries and wildlife sophomore and one of the chairmen who plans Sparty Watch.
The two fraternities co-plan the many individual events, creating a joint account and fundraising for it. Whiting said the two fraternities normally spend $200 to $300 on the weeklong event, but receive a lot of support from local businesses such as Biggby Coffee, who donates free hot chocolate.
While Merrill, who plays the baritone in the band, enjoys the planned individual events, he considers the late night singing of the fight song and alma mater his favorite part of Sparty Watch.
“The thing I look forward to personally is the singing at midnight, and I always stay for that,” Merrill said. “I love the atmosphere and I love how we all come together and sing, even if it’s just a few people … we still sing at midnight and we will continue to do that.”
Paying the price
While Sparty Watch has become a fun and playful event for the Spartan Marching Band, the Infrastructure Planning and Facilities department considers it a valuable service as well.
Karen Zelt, communications director of Infrastructure Planning and Facilities, said the defacing of Sparty can cost the university a hefty price to clean up. Depending on the damage, the cleaning process costs about $1,000 after vandals deface the statue.
Zelt said the department sends a cleaning crew of two to three, applying paint remover and pressure washing the statue with warm water afterward. She added that the cleaning crew also has to take care of the extra residue from the process that normally leaks onto the bricks below. The overall process takes up to four hours to complete.
As recently as August, the statue was vandalized with a blue M, according to news reports.
“We value a lot of what is behind (Sparty Watch),” Zelt said. “Keeping campus maintained and looking beautiful is really a team effort.”
With cold temperatures expected throughout the week, many students wouldn’t dare to sleep outside when the temperatures fall, but Merrill embraces the nearly freezing conditions.
“I stayed for my first time on Wednesday night last year, and I had my little futon couch cover that I brought out and it was freezing, I’m pretty sure it snowed in the morning. But it’s really fun to watch the activity increase as the morning goes on (like when) people honk at you,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to experience.”
This devotion to sleep in snowy conditions represented by band members is one of the reasons Spartan Marching Band President Brad Garrod believes the group has an impact on the game.
Garrod said while the band sports hats and instruments instead of helmets and shoulder pads, their participation in Sparty Watch helps reestablish the importance of the U-M game around campus and potentially in the Spartan locker room.
“I think the reason we do this is because we know how big the game is,” said Garrod, a computer engineering senior. “When the coaches and players come out to this event, it is a reminder of how big this game is, how important this rivalry is and how intense it is.”