No college band is saddled with a tougher task than UNLV’s. Because no band in the land faces competition quite like the Rebels do.
On a Saturday night in January, UNLV took on not only Mountain West Conference rival Air Force at Thomas and Mack Arena, but also -- within a two-mile radius in Vegas -- Daniel Tosh at The Mirage, Celine Dion at Caesar's, Jersey Boys at the Paris Hotel, Rock of Ages at the Venetian, David Copperfield at the MGM Grand, The Miss America Pageant at Planet Hollywood, and seven Cirque de Soleil performances, not to mention countless Elvis impersonators. So, to give me a firsthand look at how they keep college spirit alive in Sin City, the student-and-alumni band handed me a tambourine and dressed me up as Elvis. This is what I learned.
Start the show off right
First up is the 15-minute "standard opening" before tip-off, a crescendo of non-stop tunes interwoven with fireworks and flying cheerleaders. "We've been doing that since the mid-‘70s," says Dr. Bill Carpi, a charter member of UNLV’s pep band. "We had lights and fireworks before the NBA did. The opposing team used to be so intimidated that they'd hide in the tunnel when our team was introduced." The scare tactic might not work anymore, but the show still has a pump-up effect on the Rebels, who jump out to an 8-0 lead.
It helps to accompany a winner
No matter how catchy the music is, fans won't sit through mediocrity in the entertainment capital of the world. So it’s helpful that the Rebels, after three straight 24-plus win seasons, entered the 2012-13 season ranked No. 18 and finished the regular season with 24 wins yet again. "It's easy to cheer for a winner," bandleader Tony LaBounty says. "The ‘90s were particularly … challenging, shall we say? It'd be the band, maybe a few thousand fans, and some crickets." Not anymore. Listed attendance for this game: 14,723.
Lead by example
The raucous student section known as the Rebellion sits next to the band, waving Frank Sinatra and shirtless Prince Harry fatheads. But nobody in the arena roots harder than the band members themselves. From advising the refs to "get Lasik" to showering the team with "love drops" during free-throws to berating opponents with chants of "slow and stupid," their voices carry almost as far as their instruments. "When it gets loud in here, we’re almost like another team," says horn player Nick Wideman, now in his 7th year with the band. “We can have a huge impact."
Don't miss a beat
The band dictates the pulse of the crowd -- and that’s a big responsibility. Timeouts intended by opposing coaches to stymie momentum must be countered by menacing renditions of the theme from "Jaws” and horns leading chants of "U, N, L, V." Late in the game, after UNLV squanders the lead, LaBounty calls out for the Fight Song in hopes of turning the tide, and when the team brings the game into overtime, it’s time for "Viva Las Vegas."
Think on your feet
A set list is impossible to plan, given the occasional competing arena music, varying length of timeouts and sponsored breaks. To help the band adjust on the fly, Keith Larson, a trombone player and 12th-year member of the band, listens via headset to instructions from the producer. Even so, when the team is down two with 1:02 left and Zombie Nation comes over the PA, the band members are livid. "They just killed a timeout with that?!?" LaBounty screams.
Let the band play on … and on
Few have committed as much to the school as the players in the Rebels' pep band, especially considering 60% of the group is made up of alumni. Several members have been playing the "standard opening" since before star freshman forward Anthony Bennett was born. Many of them logged more than 25 hours a week marching for a two-win football team, were among the few cheering when the Rebels went 10-16 and, win or lose, always have the backs of the Lady Rebels. Tonight, their devotion pays off: The Rebels win 76-71.
For more from Morty's infiltration of the Rebels pep band, check out this gallery.