The Marching Illini has a long standing history and of course many famous traditions.

Since 1868, the Marching Illini has entertained millions of fans with traditional and innovative performances that have made them “The Nation’s Premier College Marching Band.”  The excellence of innovation continues and is very much alive today as the Marching Illini continues its pursuit of the highest levels of musical, visual, and thoroughly entertaining performances as it presents “Always Something New” at historic Memorial Stadium in Urbana-Champaign.

History of the Marching Illini

In the 1920’s, John Philip Sousa called the Illinois Band the “World’s Greatest College Band.”  Superlatives like this have come to be expected during the long and illustrious history of the University of Illinois Bands.

Shortly after the Illinois Industrial Technology opened in 1868, a military band was organized.  The military band became the Concert Band and gave its first formal concert in 1890.  The University of Illinois Bands of today are the top of a pyramid of university band organizations, both concert and marching, which regularly enroll more than 800 students each year.

The unique style of the Marching Illini represents a combination of time-honored traditions and exciting innovations.  The Marching Illini is a select organization which annual includes many of the University of Illinois’ finest and most dedicated students.  Members of the Marching Illini represent virtually every college and major on the University’s diverse Urbana-Champaign campus.  This year’s Marching Illini numbers 375 members, which includes musicians, guard, the Illinettes Dance Team a precision dance team, Drum Majors, and the Undergraduate and Graduate Staff members.

Continually at the forefront of great university marching bands, the Marching Illini was awarded the prestigious Louis Sudler Intercollegiate Marching Band Trophy in 1983 in recognition of its many outstanding achievements.  In addition to this great honor, the Marching Illini has appeared in numerous locations throughout the world.  In 1992, the Marching Illini was the first college marching band to perform in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland.  The Band returned to Ireland in 1995, 1998, 2004, 2008, 2014 and 2018.  In the spring of 2001, the Marching Illini became the first college marching band to perform in the London Military Tattoo (grand music-marching extravaganza) at the world famous Wembly Arena.  Other memorable performances include the following:

1952, 1964, 1984, 2008 Rose Bowls Chicago Bears Halftime Performances
1999 Bowl 1985 Peach Bowl
2002 Sugar Bowl 1990 Citrus Bowl
1988 All American Bowl Disney World
1982, 1994 Liberty Bowl Disneyland
1991 Hall of Fame Bowl 2010 Texas Bowl
1991 John Hancock Bowl 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl
1992 Holiday Bowl
1992, 1995, 1998, 2004, 2008, 2014, 2018 St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland 2014 Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl


The Three-In-One is a tradition forged in the early years of the band’s history from three distinct pieces of the University’s heritage.  The Marching “ILLINI” formation was created by A.A. Harding and his assistants in the early 1920’s, making it the oldest part of the Three-In-One.  The marching drill for this formation originally consisted of a march down the field in a “Block I” formation, and a marching into the ILLINI formation once the band had marched back downfield.  The present-day version of the Marching ILLINI is similar to the original, but is highlighted by an intricate countermarch that allows the band to form the ILLINI letter by letter as it marches back down the field.

Another important piece of the Three-In-One, Chief Illiniwek was a part of the tradition since 1926.  The Chief appeared at the home football game against Pennsylvania that year, dancing to the newly-written “March of the Illini” before going to midfield to meet a Pennsylvania band member dressed up as a Quaker, and smoke a peace pipe.  Chief Illiniwek’s dance is loosely patterned after Native American ceremonial fancy dance.  The dance consists of two main parts, the downfield dance and the solo dance.  The regalia worn by the Chief was purchased from Sioux Chief Frank Fools Crow in 1983;  it is topped by a headdress of turkey feathers (in place of endangered eagle feathers).  There have been 34 men who have portrayed the Chief, and one woman who appeared as Princess Illiniwek.

The musical portion of the Three-In-One consists of three distinct Illinois pieces:  “Pride of the Illini,” “March of the Illini,” and “Hail to the Orange.”  “Pride of the Illini,” written by Karl King expressly for the Illinois Bands, was published in 1928.  Harry Alford’s “March of the Illini” was also published in 1928, but was used during Chief Illinwek’s performance from the beginning in 1926.  The three pieces were eventually combined into a medley and given the title, “Three-In-One.”  The “Three-In-One” drill and music are an important part of the University’s heritage.

“Developed in 1926 by the Marching Illini, there is no more stirring and dignified tradition on any college campus than the “THREE IN ONE,” which embodies the true Tradition, Excellence, Pride, and Loyalty to this great University in the most exciting four minutes of college athletics. A medley of March of the Illini, Pride of the Illini, and Hail to the Orange, it has stirred the hearts of Illini fans for generations…here is the incomparable… THREE IN ONE!”

The Marching Illini Pre-Game Show

The contemporary pregame show combines traditional Illinois songs with more recent drill elements.  The opening sequence begins with a cadence from the drumline as the band enters the field.  The drum majors lead the drumline and sousaphones onto the field from the west sideline.  The remainder of the band enters from the two end zones in a double-time quick step.

Once the lines are in place on the field, four whistles sound again as the percussion starts the last “quarter” of the run-on cadence.  The band responds with one high chair style step while ‘crunching’ the torso as close to parallel to the ground as possible.  During the next 16 counts, the ten lines expand into a block, covering the football field from sideline to sideline and 15 yard line to 15 yard line.

Horns come up as the block locks on the 17th count of the “secondary run-on,” and after 3 solo bass drum beats, the band explodes in the opening fanfare of “Revised Entrance No. 3,” an energetic arrangement of the Illinois State Song.  Movement begins in the second fanfare as 4-member squads form out of the block.  The squads move into dual U of I logos, and then transform into four arcs – two arcs facing each sideline.  Sousaphones and percussion are centered between the arches, while the auxiliaries flank both sides of the band.

Patriotic Medley


“Patriotic Medley” follows, and the winds adjust to an outline of the United States, while the percussion form the state of Illinois with one cymbal player strategically placed in Champaign.  At the climatic point of “God Bless America,” a dramatic high chair 4-count turn to the home stands accompanies a downward cascade in the music, and the crowd invariably applauds.  After a short mark-time, the formation changes to a large rectangle.  During “battle Hymn of the Republic,” the rectangle compresses in turn to a circle, pentagon, and finally a STAR, where the band halts and finishes the medley with the closing phrases of “God Bless America.”

National Anthem, Illinois Loyalty, Oskee-Wow Wow, & William Tell

“The Star Spangled Banner” is played from the star formation and is followed by a turn to the visitor seating in the southwest corner of the stadium.  The visitors are welcomed with the playing of the visitors’ school fight song.  During the last 32 counts of the fight song, the band converts from the star to the signature pregame “ILLINI.”  Thatcher Howland Guild’s “Illinois Loyalty” is performed by a stationary band facing both sides of the stadium.  The school song is followed by a turn to the north end zone and the playing of the chorus of “Oskee Wow-Wow.”  The “ILLINI” form floats north downfield, and is immediately followed by “William Tell.”  The “ILLINI” then collapses into a tunnel for the football team in the northeast corner of the football field.  At this point, the band is brought to parade rest and half of the band is dismissed to their seats in the north stands.  The remaining portion of the band plays “ Oskee Wow-Wow as the team enters the field through the tunnel.

At a school the size of the University of Illinois, it is important for new students to find their place within the university community. As a member of the Marching Illini, you will be surrounded by friends before classes even begin. This “family” will provide a valuable support system throughout your college career, helping you adjust to life in Urbana-Champaign and create life-long friendships. You will have instant study partners, as members of the Marching Illini represent almost every area of academic study at the University of Illinois.

Hail to the Orange

The Illinois Alma Mater, Hail to the Orange is performed as part of Three in One at the end of each halftime performance. It is also sung a cappella in 4-part harmony by the Marching Illini before the band is dismissed at the end of the post-game concert following each home game. This song is based on the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity song “Hail to the Purple.”

Facts and Firsts

In addition to its performances, the University of Illinois Bands could claim the honor of holding the largest collection of original works and papers by John Philip Sousa, until 1994 when these items were transferred from the possession of the band to the university’s archives, under the control of the University Library. These archives remain housed on the upper level of the Harding Band Building.

The Marching Illini can also lay claim to several firsts:
  • Birthplace of the college concert band – first formal concert given in 1890, with performances as early as 1872
  • First school song – Illinois Loyalty was first performed March 3, 1906
  • First college to use Sousaphones – upright bell model sousaphones were purchased in 1906–1907
  • First halftime show – in 1907 for the University of Chicago game
  • First to form school letters (Block I in parade)
  • First Homecoming – first celebrated in October, 1910
  • First Dad’s Day – first celebrated in November, 1920
  • First Mom’s Day – first celebrated in 1921
  • Performed at first football game broadcast on radio (band was heard on WGN experimental play-by-play broadcast, probably in 1924)
  • First to sing a cappella on the field – in the Quad Cities during a trip to Iowa in 1920
  • Chief Illiniwek made his first appearance in 1926
  • First student card section (Block I)
  • Referred to by John Phillip Sousa as “World’s Greatest College Band” in the 1920s
  • First band to have its own band building (in the 1930s)
  • First to have a giant school flag
  • First to march mallets at the college level
  • First college marching band to release a compact disc (“The Marching Illini” in 1986)
  • First college band to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, Ireland in 1992
  • First Band with a website – first advertised in April, 1994.
  • Performed at the first televised football game and the first football game televised in color.
  • First band to use field bugles in a field show (1913–14), thus making the Marching Illini the first drum and bugle corps
  • Debbie Soumar became the first female Drum Major of the Big Ten in 1977