CHARLOTTESVILLE, Sept. 11 -- They sounded pretty tight, they had to say, for a band with a history of a mere three weeks. Maybe a little draggy on the jazz tune. Perhaps a little less than razor-sharp on those coordinated instrument lifts. But by the morning of its debut Saturday, the university's Cavalier Marching Band felt good and ready to make a big noise.
"We're squeezing a lot of sound out for 170 kids," said co-drum major Woody Wingfield. "It will just take their breath away."
Co-drum major Logan Riddick leads University of Virginia's Cavalier Marching Band before the game.
(Photos John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
Still, as they prepared to take the field at the University of Virginia's Scott Stadium for the first home football game of the year, Wingfield and company were high-stepping into uncharted territory. For at Virginia, a school of many traditions, there had been no marching band tradition for at least 40 years. And the creation of the new band had coincided with the controversial banishment of Virginia's proudly iconoclastic -- and non-marching -- Pep Band, whose biting humor had earned it as many fans as enemies.
How would the fans greet the new band, and the absence of the old? "A few old alumni are going to hate it," predicted junior Hampton Conly, a color guard flag carrier, after a final rehearsal for the game against the University of North Carolina. "But once they hear it, they'll change their tune."
In many eyes, the introduction of a marching band symbolizes changing times for Virginia and its athletic program. For years, lackluster football teams made games largely social occasions at Virginia, which became notorious among other ACC schools as the place where fans dressed up -- in dresses! in coat and tie! -- to sit in the stands.
Founded in 1974, the intentionally raffish Pep Band -- which scrambled about the field instead of marching -- was for a long time part of that party culture. But in recent seasons, the university has strived for a more competitive, big-league football program -- and many believed a classic big-university band would be a necessarily element.
Meanwhile, the Pep Band's penchant for poking fun at rival schools had triggered a few too many dust-ups over the years. At a bowl game against West Virginia University last year, the band performed a skit featuring a barefoot, square-dancing character that many took as a hillbilly stereotype, triggering an outcry from no less than the neighbor state's governor. Later that spring, university officials announced the receipt of a $1.5 million gift earmarked for the creation of a new marching band -- and the immediate suspension of the Pep Band from the field.
Band Director William E. Pease, hired away from Central Michigan University, said he had no trouble finding enthusiastic talent on the Virginia campus. "The high school marching bands are so strong in the state of Virginia that once they found out we were going to have a band, a lot of people came to U-Va. because of that," he said. "We had people who decided not to go to Cornell because they wanted to come here to be in the band."
For three weeks, he put his new team through a rigorous band camp, coaching them through a repertoire of "America, the Beautiful," and the school's traditional "Good Ol' Song" and Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" -- and then getting them to do it all in the formation of a giant "V" or spelling out the team nickname, "Wahoo."
Yet some fans already were expressing nostalgia for the less-disciplined Pep Band.
"They just had so much spirit!" said Olivia Bloom, 19, a sophomore. "It was so crazy how they would run out on the field."
Freshman Ben Allen, 18, said, "A marching band is cool and everything, but the Pep Band made us different!"
Allen was loitering on the university's famous lawn in the traditional game-day uniform of oxford shirt and striped blue-and-orange tie. Yet it's a tradition that also appears to be passing, as this year, thousands of fans donned T-shirts to oblige Coach Al Groh's request for "a sea of orange" in the stands.
And just as those traditions can vary, so did opinions of the Pep Band.