A Marching Band Legacy Returns to the Field

Esteemed Director O'Neill Sanford Honored in Halftime Ceremony
Former Marching Band Director O'Neill Sanford conducts in front of Gopher Football spectators wearing gold tops.

Opening their 2023 performance season on a grand scale, the University of Minnesota Marching Band honored beloved former director O’Neill Sanford at their first halftime performance on August 31 as part of the College of Liberal Arts Dream Initiative. This initiative is inspired by the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the historic “I Have a Dream” speech. The program invites Twin Cities organizations and communities to engage in opportunities that commemorate, foster reflection, educate and amplify shared, social justice aspirations and actions for change. 

Sanford made the history books in 1976 by becoming the first Black director of the band, and of any marching band in the predominantly white Big Ten conference. He served as marching band director from 1976 – 1985. 

O'Neill Sanford stands in front of a large group of marching band students in 1982.

He grew up in Clinton, Louisiana, studying the trombone in high school. While high school is typically a later time to start an instrument, Sanford learned quickly and excelled in band class, even experimenting on the trumpet. 

Initially after high school, his plan was to major in Industrial Arts, since he was good with his hands. Following encouragement from both his mother and band director, he continued on to graduate from Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA with a major in music education. Sanford taught at Sevier High School before heading to a position at Mississippi Valley State College. There, he taught trombone and arranged for marching band. Later, he was promoted to Director of Bands. Shortly after moving to a position with Virginia State College, a friend encouraged him to apply at Minnesota, and he went on to earn the position of marching band director. 

His tenure of nine years was filled with memorable moments for the band, including many international trips which raised the visibility of the band overseas. Sanford strongly believed in the band representing Minnesota and the University of Minnesota on a global scale. Mexico, London, Spain and Canada were some of the most notable destinations. The band performed in local streets and soccer stadiums while they were on tour, earning a warm welcome and impressing audiences wherever they traveled. 

O'Neill Sanford directs on a band trip to London, England.

During the Mexico trip, the band performed at a soccer game in Olympic stadium, as well as the Presidential Palace for President Potillo, which was a sudden and unexpected experience they were invited to while on the trip. In Spain, the band performed for a soccer match in Malaga, and in London they performed in the stadium of the Tottenham Hotspurs and Trafalgar Square. 

Sanford was a popular band director, and enjoyed life-long friendships with many students after they graduated. 

“His energy, passion and knowledge for music came through and was contagious and made me want to work at being a better musician” said alumna Stephanie Grogg. “Playing his mellophone parts was a joy. They fit so well with the rest of the band and let our section shine.” Grogg noted her two favorite arrangements of his that she performed were “Superman” and “Truly.” 

O'Neill Sanford conducts in front of the present-day Minnesota Marching Band at the halftime ceremony.

At the Motown-themed halftime ceremony, the band performed his arrangements of “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once in My Life,” with Sanford making his grand return to the ladder as conductor. Sanford’s arrangements were an important part of his tenure, loved by many Gopher fans of the time and appreciated by local music educators. He was well known for his artistic drill charts and showmanship skills. 

“It was just a pleasure and honor having Prof. Sanford back on campus," said School of Music Director Patrick Warfield, "his enthusiasm, commitment to education, and dedication to music are infectious." 

In 1985, Sanford decided to depart the University of Minnesota and take the Marching Band Director job at University of Pittsburgh. The memories and influence of his time as director will continue to live on in his alumni and in band history. 

This ceremony was made possible in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts Dream Initiative. Acknowledgement of thanks goes to Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Public Engagement of CLA, Amelious N. Whyte, Jr. Historical details for this article were taken from the Minnesota Band Centennial Book. If you’re interested in reading more, Sanford’s memoir, “A Maestro & Trailblazer From Slaughter” is available at Amazon. 


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