At big Phoenix games then and now, Pep Band rocks

The UW-Green Bay Pep Band performs for men’s and women’s basketball games, pep rallies and the occasional all-campus function such as Phuture Phoenix Day.

The most memorable gigs over the years, however, have been NCAA Tournament trips. Los Angeles. Dallas. Austin, Texas, twice. Virginia Beach. Santa Barbara. Eugene, Ore. Hartford, Conn. And, of course, Ogden, Utah, back in March 1994.

The following is an expanded version of a story that first appeared in the February 2009 issue of the Inside UW-Green Bay print magazine.

UW-Green Bay Pep Band on the Cover of the Milwaukee Sentinel

UW-Green Bay Pep Band on the Cover of the Milwaukee Sentinel

“If you played in that 1994 band,” says its leader, Prof. Kevin Collins, now director of bands at UW-Green Bay, “you know you were part of something really special, one of the truly great moments in NCAA basketball and in our University’s history. It’s kind of a special club, all the people you remember from that tournament. Kind of like UWGB’s version of the ‘Ice Bowl.’ ”

It was in Ogden that Coach Dick Bennett’s team shocked Cal and nearly upset Syracuse on the basketball floor. In the stands, the charged-up Pep Band led the party as fans went wild for the underdog Phoenix.

Adding to the slightly surreal scene was the band’s unconventional headgear. They became the first band to go cheesehead on national TV — the foam wedges were a relatively new product at the time — and CBS, ESPN and major newspapers couldn’t get enough. Collins recalls that the band wore exclusively the original “Foamation” Cheeseheads. “They simply look the most natural — a slightly aged cheddar — whereas the others have that ‘processed cheese’ color,” he jokes.

Memorable also from that trip were the accommodations. Hotels were assigned pretty much by seeding, with the tournament favorites given the ritziest quarters downtown. Nobody expected UW-Green Bay to last long, so its delegation was sent to the Flying J Truck Stop on the road out of town. After the Cal shocker, they were offered a chance to move up, but declined. By then, the blue-collar lodging was a source of pride.

Fifteen years later, the fun rolls on under new direction. Assistant Prof. Eric Hansen is a serious talent as a clarinet performer and instructor but possesses the requisite humor and energy to direct a group that once played barefoot most of one season to land a shoe contract. (They didn’t get one.)

Collins notes that up to 75 percent of Pep Band members are non-music majors, and that players and student directors gain valuable experience. Former members include a top headhunter for Google Europe, a development officer for a Madison hospital, the chief archivist for the Studebaker National Museum and numerous doctors, lawyers, and business people, music educators, musicians and other professionals. Current Student Director Charlie Simon is a senior music education major who will be student teaching in fall 2009.

The Pep Band dates to the institution’s earliest years. In the early- to mid-1980s, the group had more of a “big-band/jazz instrumentation” with 17 members for men’s basketball games at the old Brown County Arena and 12 members for women’s games at the old Phoenix Sports Center on campus. It evolved into a more traditional-style athletic band during the Dick Bennett era as interest in Phoenix basketball grew on campus.