The largest band in the land
USD looking to build nation’s largest pep band ahead of basketball season
Noah Hilton | Sports Editor | The USD Vista
There are few things as externally enthralling as the atmosphere of a college basketball game.
There are the cheerleaders positioned along the baselines, clapping hands and shaking pompoms during stoppages of play.
There are the student sections, clad in team gear and hometown colors, frantically bouncing and chanting from the opening tip to the final whistle.
Then, there are the bands. Often dozens of musicians deep, they provide the ears of every fan in attendance with a friendly barrage of sonic satisfaction.
Collectively, college basketball is a culture of chaos ready to explode at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, such an atmosphere has been largely lacking from games at the University of San Diego, as Torero hoops have struggled to counteract poor performance on the court and an array of off-campus alternatives for would-be fans.
However, it is also an atmosphere that may be on its way to campus soon.
Ahead of the men’s basketball team’s home opener on Nov. 15, the athletic department has undertaken an initiative to expand the environment at the university’s marquee winter events. The goal: build the largest pep band in the country. The target: 81 musicians ready to change the way basketball is experienced in the Jenny Craig Pavilion (JCP).
USD athletic director Bill McGillis expressed his excitement over the possibilities a band of that size could provide to the gameday experience.
“There is not a single thing we could do today that would come close to changing the student body, student-athlete, alumni, and fan experience like this will do,” McGillis said. “Building the largest college basketball band in the country and developing a dominant student section will be game-changers for our program and the campus. We need to bring the JCP to life, and this will do that. I also love the opportunity it will provide to showcase some of our most talented, creative, and entertaining students at USD.”
McGillis and his assistants began research into the idea at the start of the semester. The result was an 81-person target that seems surprisingly feasible given the competition.
“We did an informal survey of schools throughout the country and identified the University of Dayton as having the current largest pep band with 80 students,” McGillis said. “I think it’s important to note that it’s not UCLA or Kentucky; it’s Dayton. Why can’t we have the largest band in the country here at USD? I absolutely believe we can.”
In compiling the members that will make up the band, dubbed The 81 by athletic administrators, McGillis turned to the school’s music department and professor of music Jeffrey Malecki for help.
“Conservatively, [Malecki and I] believe there are easily 500-plus students on our campus who played in their high school band or play an instrument,” McGillis said. “We just need to invite them to play, make sure they know it’s going to be a blast, and get them to realize the legacy this first group will play in changing the student engagement culture on our campus.”
That assumption is quickly translating to results, as The 81 is already nearing the halfway mark in terms of completion and showing signs of further additions in the days and weeks to come.
“We’re at 35 right now, so we are well on our way toward achieving our goal,” McGillis said. “We are in full recruitment mode, and we have a place for everyone in the band, whether a serious musician or someone who hasn’t picked up their horn in four years. We know a lot of students will not have an instrument with them, and we’re happy to find a way to help them get it here.”
Already, the sheer size of the band is notable given the problems the school has previously encountered with generating interest in the pep band.
However, it is clear that volume — as measured by people, not sound — is not the end goal of the initiative, and McGillis says that such a holistic approach to creating a standout atmosphere at games is helping to generate excitement about The 81.
“It’s about having fun, creating a huge home-court advantage, and winning basketball games,” McGillis said. “I don’t know anyone here who doesn’t want to be a part of that, and together, we can make all of that a reality.”
McGillis was also quick to note that the band’s influence will be felt outside the doors of the gymnasium as well as within.
“I think The 81 can have a significant, campus-wide impact,” McGillis said. “Enhancing every student’s sense of belonging at USD, building a sense of spirit and community on our campus, and drawing Toreros together will all be byproducts of this initiative. Our goal is not national publicity with this, but there’s also no doubt that this will make another incredible statement about our campus and our university to the rest of the country.”
As for the music itself, Malecki noted that the biggest challenge is no longer participation, but rather making sure that the band’s arrangements are better built for the mass of musicians he and McGillis are anticipating.
“We’re still working out some logistics,“ Maclecki said. “Right now, we’re thinking we’ll be in the stands along the baseline. We’ll want to be close to the student section and in the action, and also need to communicate fast to call out tunes and make sure everyone’s on the same page.”
While adding 81 people with instruments to a building with the acoustics of the JCP may threaten to make more sensitive ears in the crowd wince, McGillis said he is unconcerned about any potential drawbacks The 81 may have in the gymnasium.
“I have no worries whatsoever for our fans, and I’m very excited about the problems it will create for our opponents,” McGillis said. “The longtime Torero fans and every student I’ve spoken with wants the JCP to rock. The 81 will move us in that direction.”
Malecki agreed with McGillis’ assessment, saying that between musical selections and the enthusiasm of the performers, any potential concerns will quickly fade away.
“We recently had a Facebook poll on adding new tunes — a few of the winners that we’re rehearsing now are ‘Carry On My Wayward Son,’ ‘Enter Sandman,’ Katy Perry’s ‘Roar,’ and the Game of Thrones theme,” Malecki said. “The band students always make whatever performance they have going on fun, so especially if we can get more students playing, I think the fun will be really contagious.”
Ultimately, The 81 will represent a significant step forward for the atmosphere of athletics on Alcalá Park.
“This whole initiative is inspired by our desire to create an incredible environment for our basketball teams, to enhance the vibrancy of campus life, and to build championship basketball programs,” McGillis said. “A fun, frenzied, championship-level environment and winning will go hand-in-hand; I really believe that.”
With The 81 in the stands, it certainly appears that the 2017-18 season will tip off on a high note.