While the men’s basketball team wreaks havoc on the court, the VCU Athletic Band, known as the Peppas, wreaks its own havoc in the stands. The Peppas, who have become renowned in the college circuit, will soon enter their 16th season under director Ryan Kopacsi.
The band made national headlines during the Atlantic 10 basketball tournament last spring when they were shown playing on a double-decker bus on the Today Show. In September, Bleacher Report named the Peppas the second “Most Entertaining Pep Band in College Basketball,” after George Mason.
“It’s bigger than I ever realistically thought it would be, but it’s not as big as I ever dreamed it would be — yet,” said Kopacsi, who took over as director in 1998.
Kopacsi said there was a need for athletics to step up their persona. This prompted the athletics department to look for a new director to help reinvent the pep band. Kopacsi was previously a student in the band.
“So the athletic director at the time, doctor Richard Sanders (and) B.J. Burton, called me into their office and (told me): ‘Look. You’re kind of a troublemaker, but you have a lot of energy. I think if we redirect that negative energy into something positive, you could be exactly what we need.’”
Since then, Kopacsi has helped propel the band to new heights. When starting out, though, a rather different dynamic existed than it does now.
“I was really young and really immature and very self-centered, and I was really good at what I did,” Kopacsi said. “As I got older … (I) realized the band is more and more capable … and now, the image of the band is more about them and less about me, which is really the way it should be.”
The first performance to really put the Peppas on the map came on March 15, 2007, during a game against Duke in Buffalo, NY.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Kopacsi said. “We played at halftime, and after we played, I just looked around and it seemed like all 18,000 people were standing up and clapping for us, and it was pretty amazing.”
At the beginning of each season, any interested students, including members of the previous season’s band, must audition in front of Kopacsi and a member of the athletic department to be considered for a spot. Although the bar is set high for these musicians, the band’s roster has more than 120 members.
“We just have more and more people showing interest,” said Elizabeth Arthur, a clarinetist and the band’s librarian. “As we go to tournaments, people are like, ‘Oh hey, I want to be in that band.’”
Despite becoming a renowned pep band director, Kopacsi decided to retire last season. A Facebook group dedicated to persuading him to stay, “Keep Ryan at VCU,” was started the same day as the initial announcement. After a week of uncertainty and a massive outpouring of fan support, Kopacsi changed his mind and decided to renew his contract. The new terms included a school-sponsored fundraising campaign on behalf of the band. The “Keep Ryan at VCU” group still functions as a fan page for the pep band.
“Fifteen years is a long time to do something in your life, and I just wasn’t sure if I’d overstayed my welcome,” Kopacsi said. “It was something that I’d thought about all summer. Luckily enough, the president of the university, (Michael) Rao, Ed McLaughlin and all the guys in the department felt strongly enough about it to talk to me and want to bring me back, so they did a nice job in convincing me.”
The pep band doesn’t just play during basketball games, however. They also perform during men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey and volleyball games. The band practices once or twice a week, although most members also practice individually in their spare time.
Prompted by fan interest, the band released their own album, titled “The Peppas” in 2011. During the recording process, both current members and band alumni contributed their talents. The album consisted of 10 tracks and costs $8 a copy — just enough to cover the cost of production.
In addition, the band has played at several non-athletic events.
“A couple of years ago, when we were in the CAA (Colonial Athletic Association), we did a ‘Breakfast with the Bands,’ because all the schools came to Richmond and they were here the night before tournament play started,” said Leslie Lopez, administrative assistant to the band. “The first day of tournament play, we all gathered at the convention center downtown, and we all went around, played a couple songs, and then we came together and played one song.”
Arthur was with the band at the time. “(We got) to play with Towson, George Mason, and OU as one big superband … (It was) probably one of my favorite (performances).”
Another popular event is “Band Day,” in which local high school students get to rehearse with the Peppas and watch them perform during a basketball game.
“We branch out to local high schools,” said Zachary Taylor, lead trombone player and equipment manager. “It’s a whole new experience when you see all these kids come together, and you’re trying to show them … how we do VCU basketball, (and) the VCU Pep Band.”
While the performance is thrilling, Taylor said, the emotions turn to exhaustion when the game is over.
“When we’re performing, in general, it’s almost the most exhilarating feeling you could ever feel, but immediately after the game and packing up and everything, I feel pretty taxed,” Taylor said.
The role of the band’s performance is a major misconception to some fans.
“We’re not there to be musicians. We’re there, first off, to support the teams,” Taylor said.
Kopacsi agreed. “We don’t ever want to be the main show. But we definitely want to be able to support ourselves and give those guys as much support as we can without being a drain on them.”
In the end, the experiences have led the Peppas to form a tight bond with each other.
“The band is a family,” Taylor said. “It’s not like an organization or a group of people … It’s more than a team.”