Requiem for The Peppas: How a nationally renowned band lost its spirit

Photo by Erin Edgerton
Photo by Erin Edgerton

In 2016, the Washington Post published an article titled “VCU pep band could be a lot less spicy next season after director steps down.” Nearly two years later, that prediction could not have been more spot on, according to current and former band members.

Interviews with three former and one current Peppa and two members of VCU Athletics administration illustrated an environment wrought with emotional turmoil and unresolved grievances.  

“We are complete garbage,” said Nick Rivera, a senior and four-year Peppas member. “We are not even a shadow of what we used to be … We have so much infighting and we aren’t united as a band.”

Former director Ryan Kopacsi led The Peppas for 18 years before departing in the spring of 2016, after he and the university were unable to agree on a new contract. But both the band members and VCU Athletics say there is much more to the last two tumultuous years than the difference between Kopacsi and current director Duane Coston.

Assistant Athletic Director Vaughn Moss admitted the transition has been far from smooth, but insisted students and administration are on the same page.   

“We had a very public and not so nice transition to the band director. We are proud to talk about how big and important the band is in the grand scheme of things,” Moss said. “When things are not going well, people are always trying to find something to blame it on. We all have the same goal — to provide a great atmosphere for our student-athletes and fans.”

Photo by Erin Edgerton

According to Rivera and former Peppa members Jordan Davis, Samantha Silva and Will Anderson, this “atmosphere” has drastically changed over the last two years. Davis, Silva and Anderson have all quit or been “pushed out” of the band since Coston was hired. Despite multiple meetings with administrators, Davis said her complaints of a degrading atmosphere under Coston went largely by the wayside.

“Duane was trying to make us this standard band in a box, which is not what we are at all. That’s one of the reasons I left,” Davis said. “I didn’t come here to be a band in a box, I joined it because it’s outlandish and ridiculous. I wanted to be a Peppa, and everything being a Peppa meant. He stripped all that away. I understand things change, but it didn’t feel like Duane was trying to elevate the band.”

Rivera stressed that Coston’s energy levels are far from the only factor pulling the Peppas down. Rather, an overall loss of spirit, community and collective empathy have resulted in a disingenuous atmosphere devoid of “pep,” he said.

“We used to be a whole entity that could kind of get along … the band (is) focusing on the wrong things. It’s not about me or them or Duane or even the music. All that will fall in line if we stop blindly hating each other.”

Silva and Anderson echoed Rivera’s depiction of a band that may have lost its longtime director but, more importantly, lost its highly touted spirit.

“A lot of us would love to have Ryan back, but at the beginning my problem was Duane just didn’t give the band his all,” Silva said. “He would always try and trash Ryan’s old ways whenever we complained about anything he or athletics was doing. We tried to say it wasn’t about that, but he’d always bring it up.”   

“It’s not about Duane, it’s about the passion, it’s about the feeling, it’s about the rush, it’s about the jumping, it’s about the screaming,” Anderson said. “It’s about actually caring until your face turns red with excitement — it’s about the sweating. It has nothing to do with the fact that Duane isn’t a good person — Ryan wasn’t a perfect person. But he cared. If Duane had cared about the band, I would have kept going, no matter what. But he didn’t care.”

Silva, Anderson, Rivera and Davis outlined a number of grievances concerning Coston and the band’s direction ranging from insensitive comments to inconsistent schedules, empty promises and unrealistic expectations. For example, all four cited a meeting in 2016 in which Coston referred to a former high school student who had publicly criticized his leadership as untrustworthy because “her mental health wasn’t always there, and she was a cutter, so the things that she said may have been exaggerated.”

“That was the immediate thing that made me lose all respect from him as a human being,” Rivera said.

Additionally, Silva, Anderson and Davis illustrated a collective effort by Coston and VCU Athletics to excommunicate them as a result of their voicing complaints about the band’s direction. All three former Peppas said they had holds placed on their accounts because they hadn’t turned jerseys in and were ostracized from band engagement.   

“I didn’t really get a chance to leave or get kicked out. I couldn’t make it to most of the fall events because I had night classes. At the time, Duane seemed understanding,” Silva said. “Then the first men’s basketball game came around. I had to leave early, then never heard from the band again. I got taken off the email list. I tried contacting Duane in October, and heard nothing back from him until May. All he said was I had to turn in my jersey.”

“I tried to only go to certain things, and Duane told me I’d literally have to go to everything if I wanted to go to men’s basketball games,” Anderson said “I’m a student, I’m not going to do that. I got to the point where I just said I guess I’m not in pep band anymore.”

“I was at the regular season home opener about seven minutes in — no one around me seemed to care what was going on in the game,” Davis said. “Duane didn’t seem to care, he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else. I realized I wasn’t having fun anymore and I walked down the stairs, packed up my saxophone and never went back.”

Executive Associate Athletic Director Glenn Hoffman said the decision to hire Coston came after a deliberative process in which Coston stood out as the obvious choice to succeed Kopacsi. Hoffman said the athletics department made every effort to be receptive of student’s input over the course of an admittedly emotional transition.

“After looking at resumes it was a no-brainer for us to have Duane involved as our band director. Like any organization, especially after replacing someone who had done great things, there’s always going to be some growing pains with the transition,” Hoffman said.

Photo by Erin Edgerton

“As an athletic department we are very pleased with how things have gone. The administration is in a really good place right now. From a sound standpoint — and that’s always open to interpretation and opinion — I can say our fans and our donors rarely, if ever, complain about the band.”

Rivera said he has remained a part of the band throughout the turmoil in an effort to ensure younger students experience something resembling the same loving, compassionate, energetic environment he originally joined the Peppas to be a part of.  

“My freshman and sophomore year were wild, it was so much fun — so much movement, so much energy. You had a band who could transfer energy to the crowd and team. Something has just changed,” Rivera said.  

“Everybody is not happy and screaming and having a genuinely good time … It’s a hostile environment. The band was not perfect back in the day, but the people we had actually gave a shit … The only way for us to improve is for us to be able to actually talk, instead of only talking to people with the same viewpoints.”


Zach Joachim, Sports Editor

12 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, we are letting the minority speak for us all. As a member for 5 years, I can say that Ryan and Duane’s styles are different – neither is wrong or better than the either. Simply put, Duane treats students like adults, like they should be treated. The students constantly complaining, making fake twitter accounts, and interviewing for articles are the students that don’t have the highest maturity. If you are acting immature, you will be treated that way. The students mentioned in this article are not immature, but that are far from being adults and are not spokespeople of the band. Duane is a great instructor, person, and musician. Under his leadership, a vast majority of the band is happy and able to balance music and school, because hardly any of us are music majors. The ones complaining simply can’t move on. This man works multiple jobs and is always there to help when need be, so cut him some slack.

    Simply put, to the students complaining, it’s time to grow up and move on. You all are upset because you all are being treated like adults and can’t handle it yet.

  2. How about getting the perspectives of the current band members? How about asking new and old members how they feel? How about talking to different instrument sections? All the individuals in this article are older/graduating, former saxophone players. Yes, Rivera is not a current band member. Ask any Peppa that, and they will tell you the same. They will also tell you that the band is actually fine. I’ve been a member for 3 years now. Although I didn’t like the change and am not fond of Duane, I am still having fun and enjoying the Peppas. Sure we have some issues here and there, but we are working on them and improving ourselves. We’re still learning new music and dancing and entertaining our fans. Also, any problem that I have had with Duane, I have brought up to him and he fixed it just fine. I asked my instrument section how they feel, and they agreed. They enjoy it too and can’t wait for next years basketball season. I asked some newer Peppas and they too felt the same. Overall, this article is incredibly biased and even incorrect, which is poor journalism! I encourage you to do more research and interview more, different perspectives. Please.

  3. Having been in the band three years and being part of this hell of a transition, I do agree with some of the things said about Duane. I do agree that Duane isn’t the greatest with handling problems in the band or with individuals and it has definitely showed. There was a pointless argument that took place at a rehearsal between him and a student that started because Duane thinks everyone is attacking him. The student wasn’t responding to Duane at all but took it as such because of this person’s usual attitude, prior conversations, and Duane’s short temper. This ultimately led to the dismissal of the student and Duane even called someone to have them escorted out of the building.

    I also didn’t know that Duane’s comments on someone being a “cutter” ever happened. I have a friend that knows the person Duane is talking about and I also have friends that may not be “cutters” but have some similar emotional issues. I think it’s sick that he’d say that, if he did indeed say those things.

    I’m not going to lie… I do miss Ryan a lot. He’s been there for me and helped me through things I’d never ask Duane to help me with because he’s not that kind of person. He’s more of a businessman and typical band director than he the Peppas band director. There’s a difference. I do think that the band definitely misses the approachability our former director had. We also miss the camaraderie, fun, love, excitement, thrill, insanity, and power that echoed throughout the entire roster. There used to be a lot more of that, but now it’s almost like everyone is split between sections (by instrument) or by their viewpoint on Duane and don’t associate with one another. I’m close friends with AT LEAST three people in each section of the band and I can only speak for myself which is sad because that’s not the vision we had or the one Ryan had for this band.

    I will give Duane a slight bit of slack though because these are not easy shoes to fill. He’s doing his best with what was left and with what has come. That’s all I can really say on the positive side of things.

  4. Reading comments is always a mistake but here I am…….

    This article is not only accurate it doesn’t even paint the entire picture. There are so many instances that have happened since this change that aren’t reported. Could the article have given some more perspective? Sure but heres what I can tell you.

    There have been a group of us that heard the new director say “I dont get paid enough to deal with….” he has also been heard by a group saying he doesn’t really care if he gets fired. That was before any rumblings ever came out.

    I agree with many sentiments that Ryan wasn’t a perfect person BUT he was perfect for this position. What I loved most about him was his transparency and the level of caring he had for us. But alas this isn’t about Ryan its about the new director. I can tell you he is not transparent and doesn’t seem to care a fraction of what the old director did.

    In talking to my peers most of the people are a bit uneasy about the new director even though on the surface maybe its hard for some to tell anything is off. The sentiment is however why complain? We know nothing is going to happen. These meetings we have to discuss issues are just largely smoke and mirrors. They are hand picked by the director and show his best interests. You need to understand band kids are good kids we rarely ruffle feathers. Man as a matter of fact if I were younger and I spoke out like this back home id probably be punished but that doesn’t mean what Im saying isn’t substantiated.

    Are there people who like the new director? Of course there are! I mean thats common sense. People cater to certain people and they build allies. I respect their opinions on the issues and hope they respect mine and the others who have the same ones and have voiced it. This article names names and people have put their neck out there. You dont get to discredit them because you feel like everything is ok for you.

    Hoffman saying people dont complain about the band is also complete BS! I hear it all the time. I actually went to talk to Ryan during one of the BB games and in a 3 minute window, 5 donors and season ticket holders stopped our conversation and said how the band wasn’t the same and they wished he was back.

    Athletics has no reason to take action on Duane. He is their hire. It would just make them look bad for pulling the trigger to quickly in making the hire. Speaking of a quick hire….. aren’t state jobs supposed to be listed for 30 days before they get filled???? Hmmmmmm

    Anyway, my point is just because someone is in favor or not should not give you cause to confirm your position. Each person is a valid person and should be taken seriously.

  5. As a ram fan and season ticket holder, I agree that the band is not nearly what it once was under the old director. The Peppas don’t bring the same energy and enthusiasm they used to. Some of it is due to song selection (starting a chant going into a VCU free throw? Come on) but it’s also just the energy of the band. They don’t command the arena like they once did.

  6. In response to Band Member (1st post) regardless of whether you like Duane or not, or whether you disagree with those quoted in the article, it is a FACT that the current pep band – while still doing a good job – is NOT what it once was. At one time they were “one of the most recognized pep bands in the country” (quote from news media). They were super loud, super crazy, and got the crowds on their feet. VCU fans talked about them all the time, were motivated by them, and they were a feature of the games. I have been to games where players came up the band after the game and thanked them for their spirit. They are just a typical pep band now. The difference is that there are some students that truly don’t know what they are missing. I realize things change, I just don’t feel that the changes the pep band has been through are the best. Your comment to the students in the article “to grow up and move on” based on your feeling that they can’t handle being treated as adults. I am 58 years old, and am a self-sufficient adult and I still struggle with what a let-down it is to see the band so docile during the games and long for the days when Ryan was directing.

  7. The 3 former band members said that they were pushed out for having concerns about the band. They also all said that they didn’t show up for events, wanted to make their own schedule, and left games early. Maybe that had something to do with it? That would get most of us fired out in the real world. Sounds like they were held accountable for their own actions.

    • Dear Adult,

      Thats the thing, you go to college for class not pep band. The things being missed were due to classes and school functions. Lets not forget what our focus is. We are college students! Not to mention is widely known that classes and school related functions are acceptable reasons for absence. Duane talks about that before the season.

      Thanks for your input but unless you know the interworking trying to draw conclusions is going to be tough. If you want to fight for the administration side so hard then I suppose theres nothing that can be helped.

  8. I played in the band from 2013-2016 ish and I don’t think this article even begins to describe the loss of joy and energy the band has faced in the hiring of Mr. Coston.
    Even when Ryan was in charge, I had my fair share of issues with the band. There was an obvious degree of favoritism, organization ranged from mostly-on-top-of-things to nobody-knew-anything levels, and Ryan himself isn’t always the “nicest” or most respecting person but, to echo what some before me have said, he cared about the band, about the team, about how we sounded and what we were bringing to the table. Playing in the band during the Ryan-era felt like a commitment, but one I was willing to make. Mind you, during my entire time at VCU (I’ve since graduated) I was taking at least 19 credits a semester and working at least 30 hours a week. Even, for the first few years of me being in the band, it was worth it. The energy, the vibes that the band brought to the arena were something hard to describe, you just had to be there, and people WANTED to be there.
    Enter Mr. Coston.
    He was hired on as an assistant when the previous assistant left, and that position suited him well. He and Ryan could play good cop bad cop between the understandable issues you’re going to have managing a large mostly-student band. Things were still alright, for the most part. Now when Ryan didn’t get the contract he wanted, he understandably left; he put his everything into the band, and VCU didn’t bother respecting that. Duane was and still is a horrible fit for his new position. He always looked like he’d rather be doing anything else but working with the band, he’d complain constantly about his day job and how tired he was. Under Ryan, the band was learning new songs often, usually about 4-5 a month. In one year under Duane I think we learned a total of 6. He treated the band, which is made up of both undergrad and grad students like we were a bunch of children he had to corral, and that made a significant impact on moral. He refused to acknowledge that the group was floundering. That’s why I left. I realized that what I came to the band for was no longer possible, because there is no longer a good leader at the front of the group.

  9. As the mother of one of his high school students…. DUANE COSTON has no business leading or teaching period! He is rude, condescending, arrogant and obnoxious. He arbitrarily denied Freshman Marching Band students varsity letters at the end of the year awards ceremony… my son has given an apology and his letter the Fall of his sophomore year AFTER Coston bailed on returning literally weeks before band camp was due to begin, to join UVA. And UVA didn’t ask him back! He then had the gall to try to come back to the HS he abandoned the year before. Thankfully he burned that bridge and many of the faculty band parents and admin staff vetoed that!

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