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.”
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.
“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