The loudest, most spirited fans in the house at Abilene Christian University basketball games take up the smallest space.
But it wouldn’t be March Madness without them, so when the official travel parties for ACU headed this week to the men’s and women’s Division I NCAA Tournaments in Jacksonville and Waco, the basketball band’s inclusion – along with the basketball team, cheerleaders and athletics staff – was an easy decision.
When CBS Sports’ coverage began of the men’s game with Kentucky on Thursday night, close-ups of the band playing filled the screen, drawing loud cheers back home from the more than 3,500 fans at a Watch Party in Moody Coliseum. They know, like the team, the difference a quality band makes in a basketball arena, especially in big games.
And no college hoops game is bigger than one played in March Madness, especially when your school is there for the first time. Or times, in ACU’s case.
Two sections of Wildcat Stadium are reserved each home football game for the well-known Big Purple Band. But only 30 people – 29 musicians and a director – are allowed by the NCAA to accompany a team during the March Madness tournament. The respective bands for each team are confined to small areas on each end of the court, but their sound fills the air, as it did Thursday in VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, and will later today, in the Ferrell Center in Waco.
ACU’s joyful dilemma this week was having its men’s and women’s basketball teams in the Big Dance in cities 1,000 miles apart. So the Department of Music formed two groups to fill those 60 prized spots.
Dr. Brandon Houghtalen, assistant professor of music and associate director of bands, said even Big Purple alumni were volunteering to play along. The basketball band at ACU – now in its third year – has up to 70 students in it, but some were tied up this weekend with academic priorities such as Honors Colloquium and the debate team.
So in Waco, the group will include five band alums who stepped up to fill the gap: Cole Spears (’18), Geoffrey Driggers (’18), and three members of one Abilene family: 56-year old dad Scott McGaha (’85) and his son, Jesse McGaha (’15), and his daughter, Whitney McGaha, O.D. (’11).
“They are great supporters of the Big Purple and represent a family lineage that has been a part of the band for decades,” Houghtalen said.
Houghtalen directed the band in Jacksonville and 2018 graduate Noah Hancock, basketball band director and assistant director of bands, will lead the other group this afternoon. Overall, they have played at 20 games this season, and if the Wildcats are able to upset top-seeded Baylor today and advance to the second round, well, the band could indeed play on.
“We are the university’s loudest spirit squad,” Houghtalen said.
In effect, it’s a downsized marching band that doesn’t march and exchanges its drum line for a five-piece drum set. Otherwise, all the other traditional instrument groups are represented, including two sousaphones. The basketball band also includes an electric bass guitar.
It also brings a playful and often wicked sense of humor, as seen by the hand-drawn signs on poster board that musicians flash to fans and TV cameras when not playing.
Tim Yerger, a baritone saxophone player, brought a two-sided gem with WE’LL PRAY FOR YOU and a pair of clasped hands, and on the reverse side, latitude and longitude numbers.
“It’s the location of Moody Coliseum,” he explained with pride while waiting to enter the arena as Seton Hall and Wofford battled the final minutes on the nearby court, and another pair of respective bands played with enthusiasm.
Another sign had the word MIRACULOUS with an Interlocking ACU forming three key letters.
The best might have been OUR COACH IS RIPPED, “A tip of the hat to Coach Golding’s pants thing,” Houghtalen said of college basketball’s biggest pre-tournament media story: the Wildcat coach (Joe Golding) who tore his suit slacks in an earlier game and didn’t have time for mending.
“We try to show signs that are funny because there is so much of the time we can’t play,” Houghtalen said. “But we can hold the signs up. It’s part of the fun of doing a tournament.”
The bands don’t make fun of each other, however.
“The teams compete but the bands, we love each other,” said Houghtalen, who knows well Kentucky marching band director Dr. Dana Biggs, who was one of his teachers during graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Biggs led the “other” Wildcat band across the court in Jacksonville.
There was time for some minor, good-spirited one-upmanship, however.
Houghtalen knows the Kentucky band – like ACU’s – traditionally plays “Let’s Go Cats”. He made sure his group took its opening opportunity to play it first, following the “ACU Fight Song” during a major college basketball game with a carefully orchestrated and timed event script.
“We are told when to play and for how long, so we curate a list of music that fits the various situations that arise during a game,” Houghtalen said. “We wait for the moment that feels right.”
It requires learning to have a superb sense of timing on his part: directing the band yet keeping his head on a swivel to watch the ebb and flow of the game itself, anticipating when the ACU coach will call a timeout, and taking cues from the event staff.
Besides looking terrific on national TV – featuring a NCAA first-round-best 3.76 million viewers – and sounding even better, Houghtalen pointed to something only a band director might notice.
“I was most proud of how incredibly disciplined they were. They did a great job. It was the biggest crowd all year and they had cameras in their faces as they played. There were fans all around them. It was a pretty difficult environment but I never had to capture their attention.”
It also was a major milestone for the Department of Music as a whole.
“Fifteen of those students were freshmen,” Houghtalen said with pride. “Also, we were able as a music department to support a tournament band in Jacksonville, another back in Abilene preparing to go to Waco, and made sure the orchestra and the opera could still rehearse back home. “We didn’t have to shut down the entire music department because we had both basketball teams in the NCAA Tournament.”
Abilene Christian became “Team ACU,” as he called it. And ACU’s hometown set aside any school- or religious-related biases to support the city’s first representatives in March Madness, knowing the whole world was watching.
“So many more people now know where ACU is and what we do and who we are. There are people who knew beforehand that we had a strong band program at Abilene Christian, but now everybody knows,” Houghtalen said. “I am very proud of them, and people noticed that we were good.”