Running back Wali Lundy (Col ’06) burst into the end zone, adding to the Virginia onslaught and further souring the mood of thousands of West Virginia fans on hand in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl.
Just before halftime of a 48-22 Cavalier win, the Virginia Pep Band had made its way down through the stands for its on-field performance, its roughly 100 members conspicuously clad in white pants, blue shirts and orange vests, toting their instruments. At the sight of them, the Mountaineer faithful reflexively began booing.
“We could hear it move around the stadium as more and more people stopped paying attention to the game and focused on us,” says Alex Ham (Engr ’03), who played baritone sax and wrote the halftime show, a send-up of the TV series The Bachelor.
“We hadn’t done anything yet.”
Many fans undoubtedly remembered the band from 1985, when it offended Mountaineer sensibilities with a show featuring jokes about the state’s alleged paucity of indoor plumbing and birth control. That was a lifetime ago for these band members, who were toddlers or preschoolers at the time.
Much had changed in 17 years, as the band was saddled with extra levels of oversight by the University. It was hard to be edgy anymore. Certainly, the band could not get away with some of the antics its forebears pulled off: portraying disgraced Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel as a convict, while blasting “Jailhouse Rock”; piling on an Elvis Presley figure at midfield to quash rumors that The King wasn’t really dead; tussling on the field with Virginia Tech band members over a papier-mâché turkey leg/drum major’s baton.
The band had always taken its satire, if little else, seriously. That was the code among “scramble” bands, which were the antipode to regimented marching bands. Scramble bands didn’t march. They sprinted into formations—giant turkey feet, Mickey Mouse ears, even a marijuana joint, to name a few that the Virginia band mustered into in its early years—as a PA announcer cracked jokes and musicians blared rollicking noise. Smart—and smart-alecky—students played in them. They were studiedly ragtag, bent on bending the rules.
In the early days, the challenge was writing something funnier than a Wahoo football first half. Now, the athletic department was much bigger, with more at stake. The football team had title aspirations. Some felt UVA needed a band that reflected this seriousness of purpose.
Band members knew they no longer had the luxury of crossing the line. Still, the Tire Bowl script was considered benign, compared with past ones, and had been vetted by the higher-ups in the athletic department and by the bowl game officials. As they prepared to play in Charlotte, to shouts of “Get off the field!” band members never suspected that after 29 seasons, this roughly 10-minute show would be the last the Pep Band would perform at a Virginia football game.
“Our time was up,” Ham says. “Maybe that was all the time we were supposed to get.”
The band was very much a product of its time—the early 1970s—and the attitudes that prevailed in those days, says Steve Mershon (Col ’72), one of its founders.
“At the time, the University was very heavy on long-standing traditions and had very old and staid positions on some things,” he says. “One of them was that we were not the typical State U and did not have marching bands and homecoming queens.”
UVA had little in the way of marching band tradition. A band began playing at football games around 1934. In 1941, returning home from a loss at Yale, the band’s bus caught fire between the jurisdictions of the Charlottesville and Albemarle fire departments. Neither responded. The band’s uniforms and instruments were destroyed.
Never the same, the band soldiered on before fizzling out in the late 1950s. A small student pep band played at basketball games but lacked the oompah to march at football halftimes.
“I vaguely recall going to Scott Stadium, running out on the field, playing something, and running back into the stands,” says Harris Lindenfeld (Col ’69, Grad ’71), a pep band member in the 1960s. “More often than not there were high school bands.”
Mershon had played in a marching band in high school and missed the camaraderie. It wasn’t until he returned to do some graduate work in 1973, however, that he and friends Hugh Riley (Engr ’75) and Frank Seney (Col ’74) began brainstorming a concept for a new band.
The inspiration was an article in The New York Times on scramble bands at Ivy League schools and Stanford. An irreverent band like that seemed to be a perfect fit for a school that considered itself a public Ivy.
After a year of planning, the 60-member band debuted Sept. 21, 1974. Its full name was the “Award-Winning Virginia Fighting Cavalier Indoor/Outdoor Precision (?) Marching Pep Band and Chowder Society Revue, Unlimited!!!!” and it operated on a founding principle, Mershon says:
“We were going to be funny without being intentionally offensive.”
Those were noble intentions, but in mid-October of that year as the Virginia Tech game approached, the jokes proved too irresistible to pass up. Hokie feathers were ruffled, and offense taken.
The mockery began when the band ran on the field, gobbling, and formed an “H” facing the home stands.
“Band, could you please turn the H around?” said the PA announcer. “The Tech fans say they can’t read it.”
The band also thanked their counterparts, The Marching Virginians, for making the trip, and lamented that Tech’s regimental band, The Highty-Tighties, was not there as well.
“But as you all know, it’s harvest time in Blacksburg,” came the punchline.
Shortly thereafter, two Tech band members ran onto the field and tackled the Pep Band drum major, who was dressed as Colonel Harland Sanders, and relieved him of his turkey leg baton. Pep Band members responded by tearing off pieces of the HokieBird
Thoroughly entertained, the crowd chanted “Go Wahoos Go!” Mershon, however, was concerned about what he’d unleashed. From the beginning, he says, he had recognized the potential for things to get out of hand.
“I knew we were there at the will of the athletic department and the will of the University,” he says.
Athletic Director Gene Corrigan had defended the band, and the grateful Mershon says he wanted to stay in his good graces. Mershon began self-censoring. At road games, the Pep Band made fun of its opponent’s rival, rather than the opponent itself, as a way of winning over the crowd.
“I thought it was more fun having student bodies cheer for us instead of boo us,” Mershon says.
Mershon eventually stepped aside for new student leaders. Corrigan continued signing off on shows, and with things relatively quiet, he merely scanned the script for the Marvin Mandel spoof in 1977. Though the premise was accurate—Mandel had been convicted of mail fraud and racketeering—Maryland officials howled in protest. Maryland AD Jim Kehoe called the show “tasteless, rude and discourteous.” Gov. Blair Lee III, who succeeded Mandel, deemed it “in incredibly poor taste.”
Though he was at the center of the storm at the time, Corrigan was able to make light of the controversy years later, following the dustup over the first West Virginia show. By then the AD at Notre Dame, Corrigan wrote a letter in support of the band, joking that he had been called its “illegitimate father.”
“I would prefer to be known as the father of the illegitimate Pep Band,” he wrote.
Corrigan wished the band luck, and cautioned, “you will most likely always have problems with the Athletic Department.
Corrigan was right; the cat-and-mouse relationship eventually grew strained. Corrigan’s successor, Dick Schultz, continued to go over scripts joke by joke with good humor, vetoing the more salacious. “Sheep jokes almost always got canned,” says Ron Culberson (Col ’83). After the first West Virginia controversy, a review board was created. An associate athletic director was assigned to serve on it.
It was a thankless job. Though the board was made up of reps from across the University—students, alumni, administration, faculty—the buck stopped with the athletic department.
“I had to deal with that mess every Friday before football games,” says Wood Selig (Educ ’99), who worked at UVA from 1988 to 1999 and is now athletic director at Old Dominion University. “We would review one script, and they’d pull out another one.”
“The band did get into a self-radicalization spirit, no doubt about it,” says Evan Macbeth (Col ’97). After the Pep Band “killed” Elvis in front of outraged Tennessee fans at the 1991 Sugar Bowl, Virginia State Del. Bob Tata (Educ ’54, ’67), a Republican from Virginia Beach, drafted a resolution calling for the General Assembly to ban it from performing. In response, the administration cut four games from the band’s schedule for the upcoming season.
Athletic director Jim Copeland (Col ’67, Educ ’77) went further in 1993, decreeing that although the band could continue to perform, it could no longer do comedy sketches and would be run by a faculty adviser.
“It was no one specific thing—just the culmination of our experience over a number of years,” Copeland said at the time.
The band responded by going on strike.
It’s not as if they were being paid anyway. While some of UVA’s ACC rivals awarded band scholarships and paid directors six-figure salaries, the Pep Band was a bargain, at least financially, operating on a few thousand dollars per year. It was also a paradigm of something proudly UVA: student self-governance.
“It was about giving leadership opportunities to students, and there were going to be some mistakes made,” says David Black (Col ’91), who was a show committee chair and drum major.
Those missteps made headlines, but the spirit behind them “fed a culture of enthusiastic service to UVA athletics,” Black says. The band split into smaller groups to play at men’s and women’s basketball games, as well as at sports like volleyball that might not otherwise receive much support. Black recalls playing at a swim meet.
Planning made everything look spontaneous and kept it all humming—the shows, the rehearsals and the scheduling. For the director, it was a full-time job. Leading the Pep Band was the most valuable education he received at UVA, Black says.
The band drew its share of iconoclasts and pot-stirrers but opened its arms to all. Laura Reid Krupnick (Engr ’04) grew up in a quiet, “non-diverse” town in central Virginia and had her eyes opened, she says.
“It was the first time I was exposed to such a variety of people,” she says. “Everyone, from all walks of life, was welcome. For some of us, it was the first time we really felt included like that.”
Auditions were required, but someone with no musical training might be handed a cowbell. For many, the spirit of the band was the draw. Macbeth sprinted with a bass drum on his head and gleefully banged away during musical numbers.
“Student governance was the rose on our lapel,” says Ed Hardy (Col ’02). “The rest of the ensemble was cleverness, togetherness, and a deep and abiding love of the culture of Animal House.”
In that spirit of devil-may-care defiance, the banished band took its show on the road in 1993, playing with Ivy League scramble bands at Columbia, Penn, Princeton and Yale. The Ivy bands came to UVA, too, for parties and protest shows at O-Hill.
A hastily assembled, University-sponsored “Sports Band”—dubbed a “scab” band by some—held things down at football games. Letter writers and op-ed columnists duked it out in the Cavalier Daily and University Journal. With sentiment generally pro-band, the exiles returned for the final game of the season.
Classics majors could have seen it for what it was: a Pyrrhic victory. The band had won the battle but ceded ground in the larger conflict.
Things weren’t the same after 1993. The band got away with a “Sherman through Georgia” routine at the 1995 Peach Bowl. “It was glorious; we had the entire stadium booing us,” Macbeth says. But the days of headline-grabbing shows were winding down.
By 2002, the band was feeling marginalized. “A lot of times we didn’t even submit an idea because we knew it would get shot down,” Ham says. It performed just two shows that year, one of them a “tribute” to South Carolina Senator and Clemson grad Strom Thurmond in which the band serenaded the former segregationist by playing “Live and Let Die.” The athletic department brought in other bands, including the high-stepping Ohio University Marching 110, a band an athletic department official promised fans would “enjoy and remember.”
Ham, meanwhile, wanted to cook up something that fans at the Tire Bowl would enjoy and remember. He settled on a mashup of two reality TV shows: The Bachelor and the upcoming The Real Beverly Hillbillies. Creators of the latter show, which never aired, had announced they were dispatching casting agents to “mountainous, rural areas” in several states, including West Virginia, to find a family willing to move to Beverly Hills.
The premise of the Pep Band skit was that a UVA Bachelor would choose between two students: one from UVA and the other from West Virginia. He would pick the Wahoo, but the Mountaineer would get the consolation prize of appearing on The Real Beverly Hillbillies.
The band was told that the line wouldn’t fly and was ordered to change it, Ham says. They were happy to oblige. He considered the line that got approved funnier: the PA announcer quoting the TV theme song and saying the West Virginia woman was “moving to Beverly … Hills, that is … swimming pools, movie stars!”
The line struck a nerve during the performance, although Ham says that given the band’s history, almost anything would have.
“We could have gone out there and played ‘Country Roads’ and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”
The visuals didn’t help. The Bachelor, Scott Hayes (Engr ’04) was dressed as a prep, in khakis and a button-down shirt. UVA Bachelorette Vicky O’Connor (Col ’04) wore an orange Virginia T-shirt. Krupnick, who played the West Virginia contestant, wore denim over-alls, a yellow shirt and pigtails.
She square-danced a step or two, but media reports that she was barefoot were exaggerated.
“It was December. It was cold. I was wearing shoes,” she says. “Things were blown out of proportion.”
Boos cascaded on the band. “It was really a rush,” Ham says. Krupnick, however, feared for her safety after a woman confronted her outside a bathroom later in the game and fans continued to jeer band members.
Official opprobrium followed apace. West Virginia Gov. Robert Wise fired off a letter saying the performance “perpetuates the unfounded stereotypes that we in West Virginia are fighting so hard to overcome.”
President John Casteen (Col ’65, Grad ’66, ’70) apologized within days. Bowl officials, who had approved the script, claimed they had been duped. Yes, they’d seen the script, but they didn’t know there would be square-dancing. UVA athletic director Craig Littlepage said at the time that the review board “didn’t ask enough questions.”
The band’s fate hung in the balance as it went about its spring business. Some students felt it wasn’t funny anymore. But the band also had plenty of backers, including a few in high places. Board of Visitors rector John Ackerly (Col ’57, Law ’60), sought out band director Adam Lorentson (Col ’04) at a basketball game and told him Casteen should have sent a one-line response to Wise:
“Virginia 48, West Virginia 22.”
But it was too little, too late. Wheels were turning. At the end of the semester, the University announced a $1.5 million gift from Hunter and Carl Smith (Col ’51) to establish a traditional marching band. Today, it’s the Cavalier Marching Band. Three hundred strong, it performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2015.
The Pep Band was disinvited to play at athletic events. Looking back, Littlepage says, it was not about the Tire Bowl show as much as shifting institutional priorities.
“There were a lot of people that just felt as though if we are serious about a high-quality athletic program, part of that in terms of presentation at football or basketball games should be a more standard approach.
“To go from kind of a more playful, not-so-serious tone at the games to an approach that’s more about enhancing spirit, as opposed to the focus being the band itself.”
Says Ham: “Athletics are the front porch of a University. They finally decided they didn’t want us sitting there with them anymore.”
The band played on, off the books. With the backing of its alumni, it performed at club sports games, community events, and even at Washington Nationals and Washington Capitals games.
Participation dwindled. It was tough to recruit new members. Around 2011, the band scrambled one last time, symbolically at least. Its instruments and records traveled north from its office at Lambeth Hall to a storage locker on Route 29.
The instruments were soon donated to local high schools. Culberson took the band’s records to his home in Nelson County for a sort of forensic examination/archaeological dig.
“Maybe it wasn’t one thing,” he says of the band’s demise. “The football team got bigger, people got more sensitive to that type of humor. Maybe the jokes weren’t as funny, maybe the music wasn’t as good.
Culberson digitally scanned more than 6,000 documents and images before the Friends of the Virginia Pep Band donated them to Alderman Library. A writer, motivational speaker and humorist, Culberson and film director Chris Farina (Col ’82) are working on a movie about the band, called “Pep Banned.”
Farina was not in the band, although he was a fan. He says the us versus them part of the story doesn’t interest him as much as capturing the spirit of a student group that, as Ham puts it, “had a sense that maybe the world took itself too seriously.” Farina believes a pep band reunion may be the best way to tell the tale.
He wants to get the band back together.