IOWA CITY — The last time Craig Aarhus went to the Outback Bowl, in 2006, he was pursuing a doctoral degree in music at the University of Iowa and helping conduct the Hawkeye Marching Band. He even wrote the drill its black-and-gold-clad members performed inside the Tampa stadium.
Fast forward a dozen-plus years and next month Aarhus will log his second Outback experience — but this time taking a different view from the Bulldogs’ side.
“I get to enjoy being a Hawkeye fan the other 364 days of the year,” said Aarhus, 44, who now serves as associate director of bands for Mississippi State University — the Hawkeyes’ opponent on New Year’s Day.
Blaming wisdom impressed on him by Myron Welch, UI professor emeritus and former director of bands, Aarhus echoed the adage, “You must always cheer with your paycheck.”
“It’s hard not to have that allegiance after being here for so long,” he said of Mississippi State. “So I’ll be cheering hard for the Bulldogs and excited to see friends from Iowa and the marching band.”
Raised in Alabama, where he earned a bachelor’s degree at Auburn University, Aarhus said he migrated to Iowa in 2000 in pursuit of a master’s degree in musical arts, with a concentration in conducting.
He landed a job at Mississippi State in 2003 but took leave to return to Iowa, where he earned a doctorate in the field.
He’s been back with the Mississippi State bands program since graduating from Iowa in 2006 but said the UI and Iowa City treated him well and left lasting impressions on him and his wife, Amy Aarhus.
“I loved being in that environment,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience for my wife and me in so many ways.”
The couple had just gotten married, and Amy was teaching at Lone Tree Elementary, then Weber Elementary.
“Professionally, the education I received and experiences I had were top-notch,” he said. “Personally, we really loved living in Iowa City.”
As a graduate assistant, Aarhus helped coordinate and direct the marching, pep and concert bands. On a rotation with his fellow grad students, he would conduct in Kinnick Stadium and write drills — traveling with the bands not only to Tampa but to the Alamo Bowl in Texas in 2001. He also went to Salt Lake City and Connecticut for pep band performances with the Hawkeye basketball squad.
“The whole purpose of the graduate program was to help prepare me and others like me for opportunities to teach college band,” he said.
“I am very grateful for my time at Iowa because of the people I met and the experiences I had there,” he said. “But I’m most thankful that those experiences prepared me well for my current position at Mississippi State, which is a job I really love.”
Because of his history with and fondness for the UI, Aarhus said he’s been waiting and hoping for this match up for years — which he believed would come in a bowl game, as the Big Ten Conference often squares off with the Southeastern Conference in postseason play. But it never happened until now, making this the first time the Hawkeyes and Bulldogs have squared off ever.
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Many of the band leaders from Aarhus’ time at Iowa have left, but he’s hoping to see some as fans in Tampa. He’s also looking forward to watching the Hawkeyes in action again — especially its musicians.
“It’s a first-class organization,” he said.