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Spiriting our Teams to Victory

Spiriting Our Teams to Victory

Utah’s Marching Band, Crimson Line, cheerleaders, and Swoop all play a key role in athletics success.

By John Youngren

If you were watching the University of Utah beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on January 2—via the national broadcast, if not in person in New Orleans—you were no doubt struck by the supporting players in the drama that evening, the U of U “spirit squads,” getting a fair share of air time, too. (And if you weren’t watching, why not?)

There they were, working hard to keep everyone’s spirits elevated: The Utah Marching Band. The Utah Crimson Line. The Utah Cheer Team. The Utah mascot, Swoop.

In what would become an almost impossible-to-believe Ute upset win (31-17) over fourth-ranked Alabama, it was difficult for anyone associated with the U to look at the scene without feeling a great deal of pride—for Utah’s coaches and players, certainly, but also for the Marching Band, Crimson Line, cheerleaders, and Swoop. “Look, there. They’re ours.” And every time they bounced into another rendition of “Hey, Baby,” you felt it for sure.

Yup, those are our Utes.

“To be involved with something like the Sugar Bowl was an incredibly exciting experience for all of us,” says Kory Uyetake BS’07, who oversees the cheerleaders and Swoop for the Utes.

Utah Cheerleaders

“The Sugar Bowl [was] obviously a huge honor for our university, specifically our football team and the Athletics Department,” says Brian Sproul MFA’02, in his first year as director of the “Marching Utes,” the 130 or so Utah students who perform at all home football and basketball games and home gymnastics meets.

“The students had a wonderful experience,” says Sproul. “The trip as a whole was memorable beyond words.”

This January got even more memorable a few days after the Utes returned from the Sugar Bowl, when both the Marching Band and the Crimson Line were invited to perform in Washington, D.C., on January 20 in the inaugural parade for new President Barack Obama.

Both groups were scrambling in the days following to raise money to pay for the trip. It was keeping people busy—but in a good way, given the novelty of it all.

“We’ve got quite a bit to prepare for,” says Tasha Lowe ex’06, who oversees the Crimson Line, shortly before the band and Crimson Line made the D.C. trip. “But this year has been amazing. That’s the only way to say it. It’s truly been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the girls.”

While the timing was coincidental, the Sugar Bowl exposure did not lead to the invitation to Washington.The Utah Democratic Party had actually suggested earlier to the Obama Presidential Inaugural Committee that the band and Crimson Line be invited to participate in the inaugural parade, and the Utah spirit performers made big news by getting the nod.

“This is a great opportunity for our students and is representative of the hard work and dedication they demonstrate on a daily basis,” Sproul says.

Known as the “Pride of Utah,” the Marching Utes faced a few challenges in getting to both New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl and to the nation’s capital for the parade. For the Sugar Bowl, which took place just after the U’s holiday recess, “A lot of the students hadn’t played their instrument for a few weeks prior to arriving in New Orleans,” Sproul notes.

Transporting the band, the Crimson Line, the cheerleaders, Swoop and his handler, and assorted support and administrative staff to New Orleans for the game was a logistical challenge, too, Sproul recalls. “But the Athletics Department was fantastic about taking good care of us.”

Utah Marching Band

“It wouldn’t be the same without the cheerleaders, the band, and the Crimson Line,” says Chris Hill MEd’74 PhD’82, Utah’s director of athletics and special assistant to the president. “They always represent our school and our program so well, and it was a very gratifying trip for all of us.”

In addition to the Marching Utes, Sproul also oversees the U of U’s Pep Band, which performs at all men’s and women’s basketball games and some gymnastics events, and works jointly with Lowe and Uyetake.

Both bands, along with the Crimson Line dance team (made up this year of 19 female students) and the U of U Cheerleaders (ideally between 20-24 men and women who are students at the U) form the nucleus of the “supporting cast” for Utah athletics.

“We all work together,” says Uyetake, who was a cheerleader for several years before taking on the role of head cheer coach this year. “It’s a lot of work, but we have a lot of fun.”

In recent years, the supporting cast has also included The MUSS (“Mighty Utah Student Section”), a student fan club, sponsored by the Alumni Association, whose name originated in the line “No other gang of college men dare meet us in the muss,” from the U of U fight song, “Utah Man.”

“I think the most important aspect of what we do is work together with all of the spirit groups on campus,” Sproul says. “The cheerleaders, Crimson Line, and The MUSS all do a fantastic job, and we’re just a part of the big picture.”

The Marching Band’s history is long and illustrious: It originated on campus in the 1940s and has grown exponentially over the years, except for a period in the late 1960s when the band was inactive due to lack of student support.

But the Marching Utes were revived in the mid-’70s and over the years have become a standard for excellence for bands of their type at U.S. universities of all sizes.

The cheerleaders and Crimson Line also have long histories; both groups can boast of many supporters and alums, and they are as distinctive as any other element in Utah sports culture.

At the Sugar Bowl, it clearly made a difference in the game's outcome—especially when the Utes got rolling early on. The spirit groups picked up the momentum and, like the football players, didn't let up until the last second ticked off on the time clock.

“The spirit team is very rich in history and tradition,” says Lori Rupp, who oversaw the Crimson Line for more than 21 years before leaving the U program in the fall of 2008 to join her husband, former Utah assistant basketball coach Kerry Rupp, who’s now at Louisiana Tech. “We have a very strong alumni base and a long heritage.”

Following her four years as a performing member of the Crimson Line and three years as Rupp’s assistant, Lowe stepped into the director’s shoes last fall, as the football season was coming to a head.

“Lori created a great program for both the Crimson Line and the cheerleaders,” Lowe says. “We’ve had some big shoes to fill.”

Everyone on the spirit squad was unexpectedly busy in January, with the Sugar Bowl and inaugural parade pleasant-but-hectic diversions during what’s normally the busiest time of the year anyway.

“I’ve certainly been through some highs and lows [with the program overall],” says Uyetake. “To have the national spotlight on us via something like [the successful football season] certainly makes us all feel greatly appreciated.”

For all spirit squad members—Crimson Line, cheerleaders, members of the bands, Swoop—training begins in earnest in late spring, when work begins on routines and plans for the upcoming football season.

Activities really increase in intensity in August, when football season is just around the corner and students are returning to a sleepy campus.

“For every minute that the Marching Band performs on the field, there are at least two hours of rehearsal time that go into making that happen,” Sproul says, acknowledging the planning and practice time required by each of the other segments of the spirit team as well. “It takes a bit more preparation on the ‘front end’ of the season, but the results are much more rewarding.”

Members of the Crimson Line and the cheerleaders, similarly, do much of their work in the summer months after making the squad. There’s a summer training camp, followed by an intense ramp-up to football season. Once the season begins, everyone puts hours more into practice—the Crimson Line, for example, practices five days a week for about four hours a day—and continues the effort through the end of basketball season, at the very least.

“Game time is the time to shine,” Uyetake says of his cheerleaders. “We put in a lot of work so that we can look good when it matters. Our number one priority is to represent the school well at the games.”

A large commitment? Of course. Worth it? Absolutely.

Over the last decade, as the Utes have become more consistently successful—and subsequently drawn more fans—the efforts of the spirit squads have been all the more appreciated. Anyone who’s ever sung along to the fight song or witnessed the female cheerleaders do push-ups in the end zone after a Utah touchdown (a tradition seemingly begun around the late ’80s) can attest to that.

It all adds up to what’s become a formidable (for the most part) home field or court advantage for the Utes.

At the Sugar Bowl, it clearly made a difference in the game’s outcome—especially when the Utes got rolling early on. The spirit groups picked up the momentum and, like the football players, didn’t let up until the last second ticked off on the time clock.

“I think all of our efforts combined definitely influence the game,” Sproul says. “I think we add an irreplaceable element to the atmosphere.”

Spoken like someone who knows what it’s like to be part of the “Pride of Utah.”

John Youngren works in advertising for Love Communications in Salt Lake City and has written many previous articles for Continuum.

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Bird Watching


The guy in the bird suit is friendly, distinctive, and funny. Sure, he’s a little quiet—he doesn’t speak (or, in his case, squawk)—but most mascots don’t.

“When we go to [other colleges and universities that] don’t know us, people say, ‘What is a bird doing here for the University of Utah?’ ” says Kory Uyetake, whose responsibilities as head cheer coach include oversight of Swoop, the mascot (and full-time student), who must by tradition remain anonymous. “But once we share a bit of [Swoop’s] background, they seem to get it.”

Get it, indeed. Swoop has been an on-field symbol of the University of Utah for more than a decade now. (The mascot took shape in 1996, which is why Swoop wears the number 96 on whatever uniform jersey he is sporting.)

Swoop’s origins are entwined with society’s increasing sensitivity about stereotypes of Native Americans. In the past 10 to 15 years, colleges with mascots representing Native American tribes have been put under the microscope, and some mascots deemed offensive have been discontinued. At the U, the school continues to use the Ute nickname with the permission of the Ute Tribal Council and introduced Swoop (also with permission) as another way to salute Utah’s heritage. (Swoop is a red-tailed hawk, indigenous to the state.)

Unless there is a Swoop who’s continuing in the role from one year to the next, tryouts are held on an annual basis (the current Swoop is wrapping up his first year and is expected to return next year). Uyetake says the spirit squad typically looks for “someone who’s energetic, who has a lot of school spirit, who takes it seriously,” when it comes to Swoop.

They’re also looking for someone who sees it as more than just a job or a novelty. “We’re looking for someone who can become one with Swoop,” Uyetake says.

Because Swoop’s identity is kept secret, only Uyetake is authorized to speak on the mascot’s behalf, and even then he needs to keep it pretty general: The current Swoop, for example, has had prior mascot experience at another school. He’s also good with people and very dependable. Swoop averages between three to four events a week, including games, fund-raisers, alumni events, and so forth.

“Swoop is always requested [at U of U events],” Uyetake says. “He’s very well-known.”

Much like other pro and college mascots, Swoop needs to be in good physical condition (his distinctive walk and on-court standoffs with opposing mascots illustrate why), but he also needs to have a certain comical, whimsical touch. He’s always meeting and greeting, for example.

“Oh, yeah,” Uyetake says. “He’s got to interact with everybody. People know him. People love him.”

Once they get used to the fact that he’s a giant bird, that is.

—John Youngren

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