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In his basement, Mike Leckrone stands two feet from a small TV screen, watching as the UW Marching Band forms a "W" on the field of Camp Randall.

With the same intensity of a football coach, he's reviewing the footage - forward, then backward - from a halftime show during a September game between the Badgers and Wofford College.

"This'll be a very subtle thing," he said, pausing the tape. "The space between this person and that person is about 8 to 10 inches too close."

Then he adds: "They'll be on the dummy list, both of them."

Leckrone's "dummy list" is infamous among band members - a list he posts after every performance with the names of people who have made mistakes.

Leckrone, who is in his 41st year as the UW Marching Band director, is known for being a taskmaster. Tryouts for the band weed out the weak, practices are grueling and no error goes unnoticed.

The 73-year-old also brings out the best in his bands. He's revered by his students and widely loved by his audiences.

It is Leckrone who introduced the band's signature marching style, dazzles audiences at the spring concert, and made the "Best Band in the Land" a symbol of the state's flagship university.

But over the past few years, Leckrone's band has also made headlines for the wrong reasons: hazing, lewdness, and an assistant director who resigned after reported inappropriate sexual behavior. For the first time in his tenure, the band was suspended from playing a home football game last year.

Now the band director who demands perfection from his students musically must work on improving the band's performance off the field, or risk his legacy.

Opportunity to build

When Leckrone (pronounced LECK-rone) came to UW-Madison in 1969, interest in both the band and the football team was low. But where some saw a weak program, Leckrone saw opportunity.

He grew up in North Manchester, a small town of around 1,000 people in northern Indiana, where his father was the high school band director.

Leckrone lost little time getting into the family business, playing the trumpet in the high school band when he was only in seventh grade. He met his wife, Phyllis, in band. She sat second chair trumpet; he, first.

Leckrone married her when he was 19.

"She had a terrible crush on me," Leckrone said in an interview with his wife.

Phyllis rolled her eyes.

"I got to be second chair 'cuz I was going with the band director's son," she said.

Leckrone got his undergraduate and master's degrees at Butler University in Indianapolis. He had been the director there for only three years when the opportunity at Wisconsin arose.

"This was a tough place to make a band go," Leckrone said. "The football team, I think they were in the middle of a 24-game losing streak. ... It was all the campus unrest in that period going on. As I jokingly say, it really wasn't popular to put on a uniform and march around this campus at that point."

He immediately changed the way the band marched. Most Big Ten bands raised their feet to a 90 degree angle, marching in a military style.

In a step of his own creation, Leckrone lowered the band members' feet to a 45 degree angle and pointed them, like a dancer's toe. To invoke a sense of energy, he had the band hesitate when the knee was at its highest level.

Thus, the stop-at-the-top step was born.

"The band many times in those first early years when they weren't totally mine were looking at me like, 'Is this guy for real? How long is this guy going to last?' " Leckrone said.

Leckrone's energy began to rub off on the students. He cranked up recruitment efforts and was soon turning away as many students each year as he had in his first band.

Tough leader

To exact perfection from the band, Leckrone uses an almost military style of training.

At a practice this September, Leckrone grew agitated because the band wasn't picking up a new routine quickly enough. It was the third new show they needed to learn in as many weeks, and on the sunny day, some of the band members had stripped off their shirts as Leckrone worked them over and over again on the ending.

"Let's line up," Leckrone yelled from high atop a podium. "This alignment stinks. You didn't come to work today, that's obvious."

Jon Alfuth, a senior who is the assistant drum major, said after a hard practice, "Mike may not be everyone's favorite person."

His demanding approach turns some students off and inevitably there are those who don't return after the first day of tryouts. But for those who stay, they tolerate Leckrone's criticism because it makes them better.

"One thing with Mike, he does a very good job of getting the most out of his bands by pushing them to work hard, while at the same time making it a fun and enjoyable experience," Alfuth said.

Leckrone not only tapes and watches all their performances, but he makes the band members watch too, in group showings. In practice, he has his staff put brightly colored tags on students who aren't trying hard enough - a sort of scarlet letter of marching band.

Though sometimes harsh, his criticisms tend to be tinged with humor.

He berated students for not having their instruments at a 45-degree angle in one maneuver, telling them he would go get his protractor.

"Do they still have protractors?" he asked, to snickers from band members. "I don't know."

A perfectionist

On the podium, Leckrone can be intimidating - a consummate perfectionist and performer. But off, he's approachable, his students say.

He spends much of his time working at his home office in Middleton. It is equipped with a drafting table, piano keyboard, and knickknacks like a Mike Leckrone bobblehead and a plaque that reads: "It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."

Attached to his home office is a walk-in closet stocked with costumes: Liberace-style blazers, sequined vests, a blaze white jumpsuit and a red cape.

"Not everyone has a closet like this," he said.

These are the ostentatious outfits he has worn for the annual spring concert, where every year, a showman emerges.

"That's something Mike does better than anyone I've seen," Alfuth said. "He's not just a musician, he's a great performer."

Leckrone started wearing a glitzy costume inadvertently. He sweated through his jacket in the first half of a show in the 1970s and wanted to change clothes during intermission. All he had was a "loud," patterned shirt he had brought to wear after. Leckrone put it on for the second half. Everyone liked it so much that they clamored for a costume change the next year.

Then he began making dramatic entrances: the first year swinging in on a rope from the third floor balcony, the second year coming down on a fireman's pole rigged in the Field House.

"We were dumb," Leckrone now admits. "It was kind of a sensation at that point."

The concerts grew more outlandish: the trombone section ordered pizza during one show, the trumpets grilled hotdogs off to the side of the stage, and Leckrone flew into the Kohl Center on a trapeze.

One of the best

Over the years, Leckrone took the band from a rag-tag group to one of the nation's premier college marching bands.

"There are very few people who have had a bigger impact (on UW) than Mike," said former Chancellor John Wiley, who listed him in the same breath with Barry Alvarez and Pat Richter. "There have been certain periods of time where the football team wasn't doing so well, and people went to the game mainly to hear the band."

But the antics of the band over the past few years could tarnish Leckrone's otherwise bright legacy.

For the first time, the marching band was suspended last year from playing a home game after parents complained of hazing rituals like sleep deprivation, lewd games and binge drinking. The Dean of Students Office later confirmed most of the charges to be true.

Since then, band officials say they've implemented changes in the hopes that such behavior will end.

Wiley, who put the band on probation for similar behavior in 2006 when he was chancellor, said Leckrone took care of wrongdoing "thoroughly and directly."

"Whether he should have known about it or not is a different question," he said.

The current chancellor, Biddy Martin, declined to comment for this article.

Leckrone admitted that he may have been too silent on behavioral issues, in favor of focusing on the music.

"I don't want to be a social worker," Leckrone said. "I didn't set out to be a social worker. I set out to be a band director, a musician. ... The teachable moment for me was, 'Well, Mike even after 41 years, you're still going to have to do that part. You can't ignore that aspect.'"

Music aficionado

At 73, Leckrone's energy still matches that of the 19- and 20-year-olds he teaches.

He doesn't require much sleep, often going to bed at 1 or 2 a.m. and getting up at 7 a.m. Each morning he works out on a stationary bike, or by jumping rope, and he does calisthenics with the band.

Leckrone is possibly the only band director in the Big Ten who both arranges the music for shows and charts the marching drills.

He's also director of bands at UW-Madison, which means he is in charge of instruments, budgets and other administrative work, and teaches a course on popular music.

The music aficionado has an overflowing collection of CDs, records - including 45s and 78s - and even phonograph cylinders, plus all the accompanying players. In his car he's got a CD of James Brown and one of European band marches.

"If you see my collection, you can't mention a genre of music that I don't have," he said. "I'm not fond of hip-hop and rap, but I have some recordings because I'm interested to see what they do."

No retirement plans

Leckrone said he has no plans to hang up his baton.

"I rarely give it a thought until someone asks me about it," he said.

His wife, Phyllis, agrees, joking: "I don't want him around that much."

The Leckrones have been married for 54 years and they have five children. All of them played in one of Leckrone's bands, but only the youngest is a professional musician.

Phyllis, a retired early-education specialist with the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, watches Leckrone perform at football games from a seat near the 50-yard line. He flips his hat to her from the podium at every game.

Leckrone said turnout this year among freshmen was lower than usual. But he was heartened by the fact that the returning class of members is one of the largest he's had.

Asked whether the hazing incidents could harm the way people perceive the band, he said he's not worried.

"If it does in some people's minds, then they don't really know what we do," he said.

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