Big Bertha, a Texas oilman and how the Longhorns won CFB's drum wars

by Ricardo Gutierrez - For decades, Purdue and Texas have argued about who has college football's biggest bass drum. With the introduction of Big Bertha II in Austin, the battle has entered a new phase.

The story of Texas, Purdue and college football's long-running drum wars The University of Texas debuted Big Bertha II on Oct. 15 at halftime against Iowa State, putting an end to a decades-long drum rivalry between Purdue and Texas ... for now. Photo by Jerry Hayes 7:00 AM ET Dave WilsonESPN Staff Writer Close Dave Wilson is an editor for ESPN.com since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun. Like many of the state's most colorful tales, the story of Texas' Big Bertha and a decades-long rivalry over the biggest drums in college football began with the bravado of a wealthy oilman. In 1954, Longhorn Band benefactor Col. D. Harold "Dry Hole" Byrd, a man who had earned an unfortunate nickname for drilling wells that produced nothing before eventually making a fortune in the East Texas oilfield, directed UT band director Moton Crockett to procure the largest drum he could find. Like Byrd, Crockett started out on his own expedition before striking it big. Really big. His discovery of one of the largest drums in the world languishing in an Indiana warehouse and his subsequent acquisition rekindled one of the great off-field rivalries in sports history between Purdue and Texas . Purdue had the World's Largest Drum. Texas had Big Bertha. Both claimed to be the biggest, with Purdue claiming its dimensions were a "trade secret," willfully and somewhat fancifully obscuring the real dimensions to keep the mystery alive. But on Oct. 15, Texas declared an emphatic victory when the Longhorn Band introduced Big Bertha II, a worthy successor to their 100-year-old gargantuan bass drum. Bertha II -- an even Bigger Bertha -- was unveiled to the world during a centennial celebration for its predecessor, announced at a hefty 9 ½ feet tall and 55 inches wide. The Longhorns issued a press release headlined: "Big Bertha II, Largest Bass Drum in the World, Debuted at Texas-Iowa State Game." Texas' drum was larger than the World's Largest Drum. It was larger than Missouri's Big Mo, introduced in 2012 (which, incidentally, was the Rodney Dangerfield of drums, dwarfing both of them at 9 feet tall and 54 inches wide, but never really claiming a spot in the debate). Obviously, Bertha II is a booming source of pride for Longhorn Band director Cliff Croomes, himself a former snare drummer in the Texas band. "Absolutely," Croomes said. "When we say everything's bigger in Texas, we mean it. Texas had the tallest drum and Purdue had the widest drum. There was a claim to be made on both sides. And that has now been settled with Big Bertha II being both taller and wider than either of those drums." Bertha II's surprise debut was a blow to a rivalry a century in the making, reverberating since 1921, when Purdue's band director, Paul Spotts Emrick, enlisted the Leedy Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Indiana, to build a drum of "impossible proportions" according to newspaper reports. The result was a behemoth known as the World's Largest Drum, about 8 feet tall and 48 inches wide, at a cost of $800. The drum made its debut when Purdue visited the University of Chicago for a Big Ten game pitting the Boilermakers against legendary coach Amos Alonzo Stagg and the Maroons. But as is the case in college football, there's always a booster looking to do something bigger and better for their school's bragging rights. A Chicago alum, Carl D. Greenleaf, who was the president of a rival Indiana music company, C.G. Conn, Ltd., had a son named Leland who played in the university band. He embarked on a plan to build a bigger drum for the Maroon Marching Band. In 1922, Big Bertha was born, named for a famed German howitzer from World War I. Much like at Purdue, it became a huge attraction at football games and parades. The original Big Bertha bass drum, named after a World War I German howitzer, debuted at the University of Chicago in 1922. Courtesy of the University of Texas So how did Texas enter the mix? It involves a saga that began with Chicago dropping football and leaving the Big Ten in 1939, the drum being mothballed in storage in the stadium that eventually became the home of the Manhattan Project experiments by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, the architect of the atomic bomb, leading to concerns the drum could've been radioactive. "There's no evidence that the drum was any more contaminated than anything else that was stored in that stadium," said J.P. Kirksey, Texas' Bertha historian, who noted that it eventually passed a Geiger test. The drum was ultimately abandoned back at C.G. Conn before Texas rescued it. As Texas celebrated its new showpiece, the drum debate went from regional to national. Fans of both schools have bantered back and forth for years, including a planned 1961 fraternity meetup to decide once and for all whose drum was bigger. The Boilermaker contingent arrived in time with their drum while the Longhorns did not, allowing Purdue to claim a mythical title. Meanwhile in 2012, Missouri introduced Big Mo, and Texas band officials even claim to not know much about its dimensions. Purdue, whose drum is so big that they weren't able to fit it through the visitors' tunnel for a game against Notre Dame last year (and weren't allowed to use the home tunnel to bring it in, raising the Boilermakers' hackles), didn't engage on Texas' new claims. But they did have one message for the new Bigger Bertha, keeping the spirit of petty rivalries alive. "Tell them our good friends at Notre Dame would love to see it," said Aaron Yoder, spokesman for the Purdue "All-American" Marching Band. First, we should note, that there are larger drums that would also not fit in either tunnel at Notre Dame. The Guinness Book of World Records gives that nod to a "traditional Korean CheonGo drum" in Simcheon-Meon, South Korea that is 18 feet, 2 inches in diameter, 19 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 7 tons. A scientific study, meanwhile, says the largest drum in the universe is actually the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth , calling it a "complicated musical instrument." But this debate is about bass drums. Not space magnets or giant Korean bongos. Thus, Purdue won't be changing the name of their drum anytime soon. It's all part of the fun. The Boilermakers have long tried to deflect and obscure the actual dimensions of the drum, only giving out measurements when it's mounted, saying it is over 10 feet tall on its trailer. "Purdue won't tell anyone the size of the drum," said Neil Boumpani of Boumpani Music Co. in Georgia, who built Missouri's Big Mo as well as a six-foot drum for the Harvard band. "They just keep claiming the biggest drum in the world and they're full of it -- now, especially." Purdue has long claimed to have the biggest bass drum in the world, boasting the World's Largest Drum in pregame and halftime ceremonies. Now, Texas' Big Bertha II has officially surpassed it in size. Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire Hayleigh Columbo knows the truth. In 2013, as a 23-year-old newspaper reporter in Indiana, a city editor named Dave Smith indulged her curiosity about the mystery of the size of the Purdue drum, setting her off on a quest to find out why no one would tell her its size. "Why are you saying it's the World's Biggest Drum if you don't want to be asked about it?" Columbo said. "It says it on the drum." She wrote a story that ran in the Indianapolis Star with the headline, "Purdue's 'World's Largest Drum' claim a giant exaggeration." It was meant to be a lighthearted "investigation" to uncover the truth, but Purdue denied her Freedom of Information request for the drum's dimensions, claiming they were exempt from records that contain "trade secrets." After using several unusual methods and sources to calculate the size, Smith dispatched her to the Tippecanoe County Public Library, where she found a 1921 newspaper with an article on the front page the day after the drum was unveiled, with it spelling out right there that it was "Seven feet three inches in diameter and three feet nine inches wide." She was delighted she had gotten to the bottom of the case. The readers were not. "We were like, 'Oh, this is so clever. People are gonna take this in good fun,' she said. "And that is not ... people were so offended by it. Someone made a parody Twitter account of me saying, 'I enjoy long walks on the beach and slandering universities.' It got really intense." Purdue fans had been playing defense since 1922, when Bertha I was built in Chicago as a challenge to their title. It was tough to go much bigger, because Greenleaf ran into the same issue as Leedy did when trying to build a bigger drum: The "heads," or the material on the surface of the drum, were made from cow hides at the time, and thus you had to find a cow large enough.Editor's Picks 2 Related "Our purchasing department made a trip to the Union stock yards of Chicago," one of the company's officials told an Illinois newspaper in the 1920s, saying the drum cost $1,100. "[We] spent three days at the stock yards looking over the cattle for these hides, and as the bass drum had two heads, it was necessary to find two just alike. ... The skin which was used for the head of this drum measured, when trimmed ready for mounting, 102 inches." And yet, the rivalry only lasted for 17 years before Chicago bailed out of major college football and sent the drum packing. That is, until Crockett set out to fulfill Byrd's vision of a showpiece for the band, and heard talk of a very large abandoned drum in Elkhart, Indiana. He visited Greenleaf in C.G. Conn's warehouse later that year -- 32 years after Greenleaf had built it -- and worked out a blockbuster deal. "He told me he wanted the largest university in the largest state to have the largest drum in the world," Crockett wrote in an essay published in a centennial booklet by J.P. Kirksey, a former member of the Longhorn Band and Bertha's unofficial historian. "He said he couldn't give it to me. But he could sell it to me -- for $1.00. I was happy to pay him the dollar and he wrote out a receipt and gave it to me." Crockett rented a U-Haul trailer, covered the drum in a tarp and towed it behind a borrowed 1954 Ford Fairlane all the way back to Austin, a three-day December road trip. The next summer, Crockett restored Bertha, removing the unsightly maroon lettering and replacing it with the Texas seal painted on the original heads. Bertha became a fixture at Texas, serving the Longhorns from 1955-2022. She was used in John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade, saw three AP national championships in 1963, 1969 and 2005 and is considered as much a Texas icon as Bevo or the UT Tower. She was known as "The Sweetheart of the Longhorn Band," and despite its wooden frame and the wear and tear of being wheeled around, spun on its trailer, and with generations of students wailing on it, she held up for a century. It even survived the original leather heads being slashed after a last-second 7-3 win over Arkansas in 1962 and an accident on I-35 between Austin and Dallas when the vehicle towing Bertha in a trailer was involved in a rollover crash. She emerged unscathed, but future travel was severely limited. Moton Crockett (left) set out to find the largest drum for the "largest university in the largest state" in 1954. He found it in Elkhart, Indiana, and it served the University of Texas Longhorn Band from 1955 to 2022. Courtesy of the University of Texas Bertha was forever linked with Crockett, who directed the Longhorn Band from 1950 to 1955 and the Longhorn Alumni Band from 1983-1994. He loved the drum so much, he set up an endowment for care and maintenance and looked after her the rest of his life, until his death in 2019. "Mr. Crockett paid $19,000 in 2007, sent the drum to Remo Drum Company in California and had it completely restored," Kirksey said. "I mean, everything on it was redone. A lot of the wood was replaced because it failed and was rotting. Moton's comment to me was, 'I want to get her ready for another 100 years.'" In 2017, Texas reached out to Ramy Antoun, a longtime drummer who had moved to the Austin area from California and was building drums at a studio next to his house. As someone who played drums -- he had just finished four years of touring with Seal -- and studied the evolution of drum manufacturing, including when the Purdue and Chicago drums were built, he was thrilled to get to work on a piece of history. But he was worried about what he saw, particularly the exterior wood construction, saying there was "ovaling" of the drum due to the straps pushing it down to hold it on the trailer, causing the wood to flex. While the renovations had given Bertha new life, Antoun was still concerned any crack in the outer shell could cause it to collapse inward, and was most likely to happen in front of 100,000 people during a game. "I just honestly kept praying that that drum would survive, that nothing could go wrong on the field," Antoun said. "It could happen any day. If you hit it hard, if you spun it weird. And it could happen on the field. So I told them you might want to look at maybe a new option." Antoun started dreaming big of another Bertha. But drums this big don't come cheap. No one will say what the replacement cost of Bertha II was, but donors saw their "Sweetheart" as a worthwhile cause. The Bertha Centennial Fund was launched to send her off in style. "Anybody who's 100 years old deserves to retire," Croomes said. Big Bertha I, a 100-year-old bass drum originally made in Indiana, served the University of Texas Longhorn band from 1954 to 2022 before being replaced by Big Bertha II this season. Photo by Ralph Arvesen In January of this year, Antoun got the official go-ahead to begin building Bertha II. He had fallen in love with Texas in his five years in the hills outside Austin. Antoun's house and the A&F Drums studio where he built Bertha II are located near Willie Nelson's ranch, Luck, and are built on plots of land that were formerly owned by Nelson. In addition, Antoun has played drums on a few of Nelson's studio recordings. That might've been enough to qualify him as an full-fledged Texan. But now, by building the Longhorn Band its new signature showpiece, that's no longer in doubt. "I just felt like we really got adopted by Texas," Antoun said. "We can't let Texas down. We can't let Bertha down. We've got to do this in a way that this drum will last another 100-plus years." Boumpani, who formerly was the Duke band director for many years before creating his own company, says drums this size are extremely difficult to build. Ten years ago, when he got the call to build Big Mo, the only bass drum in the world that approaches the size of Bertha II, he thought it would take him six weeks. He had the shell fabricated from fiberglass, which was an expensive shipping nightmare to keep it from getting bent out of shape. He ended up working it all out, but there was a lot of trial and error, eventually meeting locals who could help him fabricate their own materials, and got the shell painted at an auto body shop. "It took me close to six months," Boumpani said. "Everything that could go wrong went wrong." Antoun said in the five years since he started working on Bertha, he'd already begun imagining and experimenting with how he'd build a new one, which allowed him to hit the ground running along with his friend Eric Spille of Kentex Metals, a fabrication shop just a bit down the street from him. Together, they studied a video about how Leedy built Purdue's drum in 1921. "They talk about their team of engineers that got together. This right here is our team" Spille said, laughing and gesturing to himself and Antoun. "It's like, 'Hold my beer. Let's engineer.'" First, they developed a proprietary aluminum similar to the materials used on airplanes and rockets for Bertha's outer shell. "We chose a quarter-inch aluminum," Spille said. "If you were to lay a sheet out it'd be four feet wide by 30 feet long. Then wrap it into a circle and that's inevitably how it became Bertha II's shell." Then Spille built an extremely low-profile trailer that carries the drum, complete with handles as wide as the drum that look like the horns of a Longhorn steer, and a gearbox designed to look like the UT Tower that allows the drum to be rotated on its side to prevent incidents like Purdue's at Notre Dame. "Maybe Purdue will call and ask us to build a trolley for their drum so it can go sideways," Antoun joked. Luckily, the carriage was low enough that Texas didn't have to remodel the so-called "Bertha door" in the university's band hall. "We've got a door that's 12 feet tall that was built for Big Bertha to fit through," Croomes said. "Big Bertha is 10 feet. Big Bertha II, is right at 12 feet [on the trailer]. So we were concerned that it wasn't going to fit in the door. But it clears the door by maybe an inch." Boumpani and Antoun both used heads made by Remo, a California company started by drummer Remo Belli, described in his 2016 New York Times obit as "a precocious musician who was credited with developing the first commercially successful synthetic drumheads -- saving the hides of countless animals." The evolution in the materials meant that they could go even bigger than the original drum makers did 100 years ago. Boumpani said it was a challenge to get Remo to make a head as large as Big Mo's, at 108 inches, which was the largest they had ever made. Antoun, who was signed to the company as an artist, had to do his own cajoling to get them to go even bigger. "I told them, 'It's time to make history,' Antoun said. "'We have an opportunity to create another 100-year-old legacy. You want to be a part of this. I'm telling you, as a friend, as a business I believe in and as the only people in the world that can do it.' And they figured it out, man." At 114 by 55 inches, it's the largest drum head the company has ever created, a no-doubt signifier it's the biggest bass drum in the world. For Spille, who is originally from Kentucky but has been in Texas for more than 20 years, it was a chance for his own love letter to the Lone Star State. "One of the thrilling things for me is my wife of 24 years graduated from UT," Spille said. "So up until this point, I really wasn't that cool, but now I'm a little cooler in her book. "[Bertha I] was Chicago's drum. This wasn't 100% meant for Texas," he added. "This drum was built here in Texas, with Texas connections, built for Texas." Aside from being the biggest, Bertha II strikes another claim: It can play the lowest note ever played on a drum. And with a new wireless microphone inside it connected to the stadium speakers (another first), it's going to shake things up. "The bigger the diameter, the lower the note. That's drums," said Antoun. "If this is the biggest bass drum in the world, then it's going to be the lowest note. I don't know what kind of subwoofers they have in that stadium. But it has the ability to break windows. Everybody's gonna be feeling like there's an earthquake in there. It'll rumble." Big Bertha II is officially ready to make her pregame debut on Saturday, when Texas hosts TCU. Steven Gunter/Pearlsnap Photography Holden Logan, a Longhorn Band member at Texas who is the section leader for "Bertha Crew," will be the guy doing the rumbling for the TCU game this weekend when he swings away for Bertha II's first appearance in pregame festivities and during the national anthem. "It's just such a cool honor to be in this position when it's the 100-year anniversary of a drum that has so much history with the school," Logan said. "I'm only going to get two home games with her but I'm hoping that she'll make some new memories just like the old Bertha has plenty of memories of her own." Bertha I has moved to a permanent home on display in the school's Athletics Hall of Fame under the north end zone at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Kirksey, who played in the Longhorn Band in the 1960s and was good friends with Crockett, the man who bought, delivered and maintained Big Bertha I for so many years, is a bit wistful about the old drum being a museum piece. "I am glad that Mr. Crockett is not alive today just because that was his baby and he would like to have seen that drum used forever and that's why he paid the money 15 years ago," Kirksey said. "But that's all history now. I'm OK with her retirement." Even if he still would like to settle one old score. "[The original] Bertha clearly still is the biggest drum ever built using leather heads," Kirksey said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that among anybody anywhere except Purdue with their foibles and fakery." Croomes is excited for the new era, including that fans can once again see the original Bertha on display. "We're extremely happy to have both girls in the family," he said. As far as the former champ, Boumpani heard the news last week from a reporter that Big Mo had been eclipsed. As a member of such a small fraternity, he wasn't disappointed so much as he was excited to know all the details and dimensions, and was impressed that it was fashioned from metal. But, after his own experience successfully learning to build big drums on the fly -- including hand-delivering Harvard's new drum just 45 minutes before their celebratory concert to unveil it -- Boumpani hopes the drum wars never end. "Maybe somebody will want me to make a bigger one now," he said. "Tell 'em I'm willing to take the challenge."