The band that's as good as as the basketball

The band that's as good as as the basketball

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer

They've decided on Director Park, the stone-slab and sterile one-block-wide open area in the middle of Portland's downtown. They just showed up here, as they're wont to do — and unsuspecting people are thankful for it; just ask those who had their Riverwalk experience enhanced when a boat crammed with 29 instruments plowed through San Antonio in 2011.

“You think I'll get arrested?” Ryan Kopacsi asks, and I sort of think he wants to.

He's the guy in charge of this thing. And this thing is arguably the best pep band in college sports, VCU's Peppas, which became an entertaining sideshow to the basketball team's 2011 Final Four run. By fortune of the Rams' return to the NCAAs this year, and its Round of 64 win over Wichita State, I was able to spend an afternoon with the man and the group that's intent on trying to change the way basketball programs put on a show. This is his goal: to eliminate sterile, repetitive, predictable music at basketball games and make timeouts and halftimes about a lot more than humming along to the melody of “Hey! Baby” for the 516th time.

Assembling a drum kit and tuning up tubas in the middle of Portland's public, 52-degree air: not predictable. Also: illegal? Kopacsi doesn't know, but he'd rather just go for it and see what happens.

“Ryan, you're a terrible influence,” one of the band members says.

“Yep, I sure am,” Kopacsi quickly responds.

Kopacsi, 33, is the “director of athletic bands.” He's been in charge of VCU's brass, percussion and woodwinds at basketball games for 14 years — yes, since he was 19. Many band conductors are well into their 40s. How'd this guy get the gig before he could buy beer? By being a bad influence. Kopacsi was a reckless sophomore sax player who got in trouble too many times to count. He got called into an office by a former VCU athletic director and expected to be banned from the band forever. Instead, he was told his uncontainable energy could be used for good. The band was then his to lead.

The Peppas quickly drew a crowd in Portland.(Matt Norlander)

And so the superconductor was born.

He's hated by most other pep bands within the Colonial Athletic Association because he's brash. Kopacsi rips his clothes off at games because he can. His band blows most others' out of the arena — intentionally. He's the antagonist. They don't like the flamboyant, boisterous personality out of a band's conductor, he says.

“They hate everything I represent. They hate VCU, they hate me, they hate the band,” Kopacsi said. “And I get it — it's fine — but it's my job to cause havoc.”

“Havoc” is also the name of VCU's new-look, frenzied, leading-the-nation-in-turnovers-forced defense. Eight years ago Kopacsi gingerly came into a game on crutches. People were concerned. Then the band started playing, he threw the crutches and started a jig. Just because. This year, eight years after that unprompted display, an alumnus asked him to do it again. He obliged.

When it's not playing in the NCAA tournament, Peppas uses amplification: bass and guitar. Kopacsi wishes he could bring even just five more members to tournament games. He hates the NCAA and its dumb regulations. (Isn't it comforting to know this issue extends beyond coaches, players and the media?)

“Thirty-five and amplification,” Kopacsi said. “Just give me that— and then everyone can see what we'll do. They say it's about the sound bleeding through the TV, but that's absolutely not true and not an issue.”

There are more songs in the band's catalogue (nearly 80) than there are people in the band. Travel bands for the NCAA tournament are only allowed to be 30 people deep, conductor included, meaning VCU can bring less than half of its 70-person outfit to the games. In Portland, the Peppas are comprised of eight trumpets, eight trombones, five tubas, a drum set, a tenor sax, two flutes, a clarinet and a mellophone.

Slowly but surely Kopacsi believes other bands are getting how teams and fans feed off creativity, energy and musically interactive experiences. It can help a program win; people feel better when good, different music is played. The Peppas pride themselves on the fact they don't have sousaphones or trombones adorned with team logos. To them, thickly striped band shirts and decorating instruments is beyond tacky. They are not with the basketball program — they enhance the basketball program and the experience of going to a game.

They also try their best to not pick songs every other band is playing. You probably don't know Rebirth Brass Band or No BS!, but you know you love it when you hear those songs. Kopacsi picks songs based on what they'll be good for. The mood, the right song at the right spot: pre-game, during timeouts, halftime, and post-game. It's a lot of funk, groove, big brass band and bombastic pop that he chooses.

“Other bands are really getting the idea that it's not just music,” Kopacsi said, pointing out George Mason (who is also very awesome) as a dominant example. “But other band directors, it's like “Flight of the Bumblebee” and making sure everything is perfect, but you lose the aspect of the show. You have to put on a show. Because basketball fans don't care if all the notes are right. They just want to be entertained.”

The crowd in Portland is completely entertained. The sound fills up the air for at least two blocks in every direction. I know because one guy came over from two blocks away and told me this sound drew him in. When the Peppas starting their first song, maybe 25 people occupied Director Park. Within five minutes, the number was 40. Twenty minutes later: almost 250. Good music is like magnetism. People that were enjoying a meal on the second floor of the Ringside Fish House are tilting their heads toward the window. They're now bobbing, too. They're watching Jared Peyton bend his body in a worm-like way while somehow blowing every note on a 30-pound tuba that's attached to his left shoulder.

Peyton's the one who will take off his pants and expose his American-flag boxers (depicted on the band's album cover; that's Kopacsi ripping off his shirt, by the way) in a given moment. He's encouraged by Kopacsi.

“We don't have that band-in-a-box sound,” Peyton said. “We sound just as good, if not better, playing outside the arena.”

Allen Sleeman's the one who slaps umbrellas, music stands and sneakers in the middle of a solo. A hell of a drummer.

“Unlike anything I've ever been a part of,” Sleeman said. He loved it so much that he came back for games this year — after graduating a few years ago. Not uncommon. Kopacsi has had parents sit in and play with their children at games before.

Chris Sclafani's the guy in the dilapidated black-and-yellow hat straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. He's also the lone saxophone player, the jazzy bend to the band. If the rules allowed it, he'd leave his bandmates behind the hoop and stroll the coaches boxes on the sideline while freelancing a solo from one of the many big brass band numbers VCU plays.

Almost everyone in the band's a character. They have to be; it's part of the identity, part of the fun, and an indication they've been good enough to qualify for the travel group, which is very competitive and awards small scholarships.

They're playing “Rolling” by Rebirth Brass Band in Director Park now. Like almost every song they choose to take on, it's fantastic. There is not one person in Director Park unable to have a good time. More than a band, it sounds like a beautiful machine. Sounds like they've done this tune for 10 years.

They learned it the day before.

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