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Friday, August 26, 2011

The Sudler Fallacy

You've heard me use the Sudler Trophy as a high water mark for a marching band's achievement, and even as a bellwether for the marching strength of conferences. True enough, the Sudler Trophy, which by their own definition is awarded biannually (formerly annually) to "collegiate marching bands of particular excellence that have made outstanding contributions to the American way of life.  The Sudler Trophy will be awarded biannually to a college or university marching band which has demonstrated the highest of musical standards and innovative marching routines and ideas, and which has made important contributions to the advancement of the performance standards of college marching bands over a number of years." While it is by no means inconsequential, I do want to let it be known that the fallacy of using it as a sole or near-sole measure of a band's worth is not lost on me.

The biggest caveat with the Sudler Trophy is that is is only awarded once to any given band. In the past I have used the fallacious argument that the first band awarded was the best band, and each subsequent band was the best of the rest, but given the changing nature of bands, we all know that that isn't necessarily so, or even if it was true in 1982 when Michigan was awarded the first, it isn't necessarily true now. In fact, it's worth noting that there are marching bands (USF's Herd of Thunder being among them) that didn't even exist when the award came into being. While the one-time awarding speaks to tradition, which I find particularly important in the marching band world, what does a band do after the win? Continue the excellence? Stagnate? Innovate? It is also unclear on the evaluation period: Is it since the last was awarded? The past several years? Lifetime achievement?

I've used the Sudler Trophy to prop up a belief I hold that the Big Ten is the strongest marching conference. I fully admit the bias that leads me to this conclusion--having marched under a Michigan man, and marching traditional style is no small part of that. True enough, it's hard to deny--ten of the Big Ten's twelve members are Sudler Trophy winners and the conference, and they account for both primacy and recency: The conference won both the first three and the last one awarded to a member of a BCS AQ conference. But just for the sake of argument, let's rewind to 2005, just before Penn State won. There are two narratives that can be told there, and their contrast illustrates the difference in interpretations. At that point it would be correct to say that the seven Big Ten schools had won, more than any other conference. But here's another interpretation: "Man, the Big Ten hasn't won a Sudler in a decade. In that time, the SEC's won four, the Big XII has won three, hell, the Big East and even a I-AA program have won. The marching world sure is passing the Big Ten by." Which is correct?

Here's another one: Let's say the question is asked: What's the best marching band in the Big East? If you're using the Sudler Trophy as your barometer, you'd have to say the Pride of West Virginia. But take a look at the landscape in 1997, when WVU won: The Herd of Thunder wasn't yet in existence. UConn was playing I-AA ball (this isn't to say that lower level programs can't win; indeed, three I-AA programs hold Sudlers) and Cincinnati and Louisville were still in Conference USA. What's to say that things haven't changed significantly in the last decade and a half?

Bands that have hoisted Lord Sudler (yeah, I went there) should absolutely be proud of their accomplishment, and I will probably still use it in some instances as a measure of a band's cred. But I can't pretend it is the be-all, end-all. I'd love to see another such annual (or hell, weekly) award come into being as another measure.
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