The Pride of the Southland Marching Band boasts some 345 members, but on Saturday, Nov. 9, their ranks will swell to more than 800 when the University of Tennessee Alumni Band joins them on Shields-Watkins Field for the annual homecoming celebration.
Informally dubbed the Over the Hill Band, the alumni will start checking in before dawn, some as early as 5 a.m., to be ready for the noon kickoff. By 7:30, the Pride alumni, 466 strong, will be packed into the band room, tuning up instruments and studying routines. Some will have traveled across the country to be here.
"Anybody up for going into the administrative offices and blasting ‘Rocky Top' with your instrument?" asked one alum on the "We support the Pride of the Southland and Director Gary Sousa" Facebook page. "We could video tape it. … Would be as funny as when the guy quit his job by marching band!"
The Pride alumni march every year, but not in these numbers. They will be showing up in force to support the members of the present marching band and to serve as a living reminder of the band's 144-year tradition. There is concern among many that the tradition is being jeopardized by changes mandated by the athletics department. Band director Gary Sousa's public complaints about budget cuts and piped-in, pre-recorded game time music in Neyland Stadium, followed by his subsequent suspension for insubordination, ignited the controversy. On the morning of Oct. 9, a mass e-mail went out from a band member via social media:
"A battle is upon us and we need your help. The athletics department is trying to cut the band from the stands. They have recently informed the Pride, which has been a Tennessee tradition for 144 years, that we will be limited in when and what we can play in the stands. Now instead of hearing classics like the ‘Vol Spellout,' ‘Living on a Prayer' and ‘Neck,' you instead listen to ‘canned' music from the loudspeakers and be subjected to athletic marketing and commercials where you once had live music and cheers."
That afternoon, an e-mail from Senior Associate Athletics Director Chris Fuller made the rounds denying most of the band member's allegations, saying that money has been tight and budgets have been reduced across the board.
"We have not reduced in any significant way the amount of time that the band plays during the game. We haven't added ‘commercials.' We've asked the band to work with us to better coordinate the breaks – with the goal being to make sure we're creating the best competitive atmosphere possible in Neyland Stadium. We have weekly Football Production meetings. The band participates in those meetings – there aren't any surprises on Saturday. The use of canned music is part of our overall strategy and can be an effective part of it."
Other members of the athletics department explained that the pre-recorded hip-hop music is popular with football and Lady Vol basketball recruits who are in attendance.
On Oct. 14, Sousa was suspended, becoming the latest in a growing string of longtime UT personnel who have run afoul of Athletics Director Dave Hart. Provost Susan Martin labeled Sousa's actions "shockingly insubordinate."
Count former Knox County Law Director Richard Beeler, a member of the Pride drum corps in 1975 and 1977, as one who is unconvinced by Fuller and Martin's arguments. He says he will be there to make a point.
"It's been 36 years since I've played and marched. I'm doing this purely to show that there's a helluva lot of support for the Pride, for the kids, and for the tradition. I feel that it needs to be forcefully brought to the attention of the administration that the Pride is an important part of the university."
Beeler hopes the point will not be lost on UT administrators.
"When I was there, kids from all over the country came to play in the Pride, and I'm including performance majors. It was a tough try-out to get in the band, and that's the tradition that we want to see continued. As part of the Pride, you're part of something that's a standard of excellence, and when someone screws with it, even if it's only a perception, we're going to be heard from. The expectations don't change. Doc [longtime band director Dr. W.J. Julian] made it too strong for that."
Pride alumnus Donald Thorne won't be marching, because he thinks the fees are too high (around $150 for those who must buy their own game ticket and make a first-time uniform purchase), but he's not mincing words about what he sees as the root of the problem: "On the Sousa issue—isn't it like when Hart fired the women's basketball trainer, Moshak?" The Lady Vols' widely acclaimed trainer, Jenny Moshak, who has sued UT for sex discrimination, resigned before the start of the fall semester, citing an intolerable work environment.
"Don't upset the AD! It also seems to be all about a big ego. I am not against change. I think Sousa jumped the gun and panicked. I don't think it should have cost him his job. He needed to wait and find out what the decisions are before doing anything. The AD comes off as a complete dictator. You fill in the blank. Lots of people are upset. You should see the posts on the UT Alumni Band Facebook group."