Controversy doesn't silence UT's Pride of the Southland band (with video)

Controversy doesn't silence UT's Pride of the Southland band (with video)

October 26th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Local Regional News

The national anthem. "Hey, Baby." And, of course, "Rocky Top."

Those were some of the songs filling the Miller Park air at lunchtime Friday as the University of Tennessee's Pride of the Southland Band made its traditional Scenic City stop on its way to today's Southeastern Conference football game at No. 1 Alabama.

Believed to first have been staged 38 years ago, the free concert has long been delivered on odd-numbered years for the Alabama game and on even years since at least 1992 -- the year the SEC split into divisions -- for the Georgia contest in Athens.

"I've probably been to almost every one of them," said Betty Ball, who's owned UT season football tickets for four decades. "It just means a lot to have the band stop here. It's one of Tennessee's best traditions, I think."

It's clearly a popular tradition in the Tennessee Valley given that more than 1,000 people crowded into the park for the 45-minute concert, which included at least one unwelcome rat running beneath the feet of a few band members.

A simmering controversy involving band director Gary Sousa prompts a question whether the tradition could be in jeopardy.

Sousa, a tenured faculty member in UT's School of Music with 16 years on the job, was placed on administrative leave for the remainder of the fall semester earlier this month for what school officials called insubordination, misrepresentation of facts and a lack of confidence in his ability to work with others.

Sousa reportedly believes his budget is being slashed and the band's off-field playing time reduced in favor of piped-in music over the Neyland Stadium loudspeakers during football games.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville Pride of the Southland band performs Friday afternoon at Miller Park.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville Pride of...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Intensifying the controversy, members of the athletic department, including new football coach Butch Jones, have supposedly pushed for the nonband music, reportedly believing it heightens the game-day experience for younger fans, players and recruits.

"We're not allowed to comment on that," said interim director Don Ryder, who's worked at the school for 14 years and conducts the UT Symphonic Band. "But I can say that Butch Jones has been very supportive. A lot of people may not know this, but Coach Jones actually played trumpet in his high school band."

Krista Adamsky, of Soddy-Daisy, plays clarinet in this UT band. Her parents first brought her to the Miller Park concerts when she was a toddler, dressing her in a UT cheerleader outfit.

"You don't realize how many people support you until you play at an event like this," said the senior. "I owe so much to this band and the directors regarding my education. It would have been hard to go to college without being a part of the band. It's a lot of hard work, we sometimes have 25-hour weeks, but it means everything and more to be a part of this."

Adamsky is one of 330 band members who piled into eight tour buses for the two-day round trip to Tuscaloosa and back. After its lunchtime stop in Chattanooga, the band was expected to proceed to Hoover, Ala., where it would practice at Spain Park High School, then spend the night outside Birmingham before making the short trip to Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium today.

Once there, they are sure to encounter thousands of Crimson Tide backers with attitudes similar to Chuck O'Mary and Kenneth Brown, who crashed the concert wearing crimson Alabama jackets.

"This is nice, but when the Alabama band plays here (on years the Tide visits UT) we have to have it at the (First Tennessee) Pavilion because this place won't hold us all," O'Mary said. He said his grandson is named Bryant for Tide coaching legend Paul "Bear" Bryant, despite his daughter being a Tennessee fan.

Added Brown, whose young granddaughter Kenzi wore a tiny UT cheerleading outfit, "She'll be wearing red tomorrow."

Yet 99 percent of the crowd was clad in UT's distinctive orange, including Roger Woody, who's helped organize the concert since 1982.

"I've had a lot of help over the years," said Woody. "Just look at this year. We're able to provide lunch to the band because of Chick-fil-A, Chattanooga Coca-Cola and McKee Bakery. We've always had such great support for this concert."

It also hasn't hurt that the Vols are now 4-3 coming off last week's 23-21 win over then-No. 11 South Carolina.

"You can see the crowd swell when the team is better," said WRCB Channel 3's Greg Glover, a former UT drum major who emceed the concert. "What a great way to get fired up to play that red team."

But which music these fans would prefer to hear at UT home games -- live band or piped-in -- is less clear.

"I gotta stand behind the band," Woody said. "The [piped-in] is all right in little bits, but not so loud."

Former UT band member Wes Kendall was more uncertain.

"It goes against a lot of our traditions," said the former drummer. "And tradition is what we were always about with the band. But the [piped-in]might be pretty cool, too."

Different notes for different folks, which pretty much sums up musical tastes since the beginning of time.

Contact staff writer Mark Wiedmer at