They came filing into the Jewel of Midtown slowly, each one wearing their trademark blue and white rugby shirts, carrying an instrument case in one hand and a music stand in the other. Slowly the grouping filled in: drums in front, flutes and clarinets behind them, then saxophones, trombones, then trumpets, sousaphones off the right, because they need more room. The director, Mike Beczkala, a mild-mannered elementary school principal by day, looked at his band and said, "We have a good group tonight. This is going to sound great. Did you all have a good Christmas? I bet you're all still hung over!"
As the pre-game countdown clock approached 20 minutes, Beczkala said, "You ready? Green Onions! One, two, one, two, three, four..."
The air instantly fills with their take on the electric organ riff of Booker T. & the MG's instrumental hit, and the Saint Louis University Pep Band was underway for another night's performance.
The SLU Pep Band is usually 100-plus strong, but with the holiday break upon them, a paltry 73 showed up for tonight's contest with Texas Southern. Seriously though, limited my basketball travels may be, I have found few pep bands coming close to the sound and charisma displayed here in my hometown.
After their opening number, the band took a quick break to allow for some obligatory announcements. Beczkala shouted to his group, "Mr. Roboto, no intro! Here we go!" Another count-in, and the band launched into the Styx hit. But this was the start of one of the SLU band's best customs, a four-song pre-game medley, each following song prompted by Beczkala's writings on a small whiteboard, much like a coach mapping out his next play. In eight minutes, they went from "Mr. Roboto," to T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)," to Earth, Wind and Fire's "September," to an up-beat version of The Drifter's "On Broadway." Each number came and went seamlessly, with a drum or bass guitar solo between songs.
And as the Billikens ran out onto the Chaifetz Arena court, the band made another seamless transition from Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious" to the de facto SLU fight song, "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Then came the starting lineup, which the band sits out while AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" blares from the speakers around the arena. And to give an idea of how important this band is in the SLU game experience, here's the basic rundown of introductions made by public address announcer Guy Phillips:
-Players: Brian Conklin, Dwayne Evans, Rob Loe, Kwamain Mitchell, Kyle Cassity. -The "Sixth Man," the SLU-natics (Student Section) -The SLU Pep Band -Rick Majerus
You read that right. They introduce THE BAND before the coach.
After a rousing rendition of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," the ball went up, and the band quieted down... sort of.
The secondary function of any good pep band is to unconditionally support the home team and unmercifully razz the opposing team, and the Billiken Band held its own here as well. The easy target for Texas Southern was their fourth-year coach, Tony Harvey. Harvey is known around these parts as the mastermind recruiter behind Quin Snyder's Missouri Tigers teams of the early 2000s. And as expected the shout from one of the band members came, "Hey, Tony, how's Rickey Clemons doing? Have you talked to Rickey lately?!?"
A flood of memories rushes back: domestic violence, arrests, illicit phone calls with racial slurs, an ATV crash, an NCAA investigation, a back-channel conversation, my school's on probation, Harvey's fired, Snyder leaving soon after on his own accord, but barely.
But that was a long time ago. And this is Texas Southern and St. Louis. The Billikens remain a fun team to watch, a precise motion offense creating open shots for the guards or open drives for the bigs, and a smothering defense leading to fast-break layups. SLU had no problem opening up another big lead on a hopelessly mismatched opponent.
As for the band, they continued their performance with more great selections during the timeouts. If SLU's pep band were a radio station, it would be one with a mish-mash of music from all eras, one of those constantly reminding you how great their variety is.
But their signature song came during the final media timeout. Four sousaphone players lined up in the tunnel and waited for the official's whistle.
Then it began: OOM-PAH, OOM-PAH, OOM-PAH, OOM-PAH-PAH-PAH -- a lively German beat capable of making even the most stone-hearted Herr long for his old Deutschland home. The fans all began to clap along to the beat as the video boards slowly seemed to fill with a yellow bubbly liquid. The sousaphones marched out to mid-court and around the circle there, continuing the OOM-PAH's. After a few more measures, the rest of the band kicked in with the tune to "When You Say Bud," the jingle for Budweiser beer written in 1971. The SLU pep band isn't the only one to play it, but it naturally fits in St. Louis, just blocks from the brewery itself. The Busch family, or their money rather, built a good portion of this city and a decent sized portion of the SLU campus as well, and this serves as a subtle "This Bud's for You" to the folks at Anheuser-Busch.
After a couple rounds of the tune, the band stopped and sang the last line a capella, "When you say SAINT LOUIS, you've said it all!" And with that, the second scoreboard horn sounded, calling the teams back on the court to quickly conclude this game with another convincing SLU win.
As the fans quickly shuffled out, the band serenaded them with "Sweet Caroline." I wanted one more song, so I waited. As I walked out, they lit into The Stray Cats' "Rock This Town," an upbeat finish as well as a statement of what they do every time there's a Billikens game.
at SAINT LOUIS 71, TEXAS SOUTHERN 39 12/27/2011
TEXAS SOUTHERN 1-10 (0-0) -- O. Strong 4-11 0-0 9; D. Scott 3-6 0-1 6; D. Ellington 1-4 0-2 2; A. Clayborn 3-7 2-2 8; F. Sturdivant 1-5 0-4 2; J. Peters 1-2 1-2 4; D. King 0-3 0-0 0; M. Gibbs 0-3 1-2 1; L. Johnson-Danner 0-2 0-0 0; D. Joyner 2-4 2-2 6; T. Price 0-2 0-0 0; P. Onwenu 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 15-49 7-17 39. SAINT LOUIS 12-1 (0-0) -- K. Mitchell 4-7 0-2 9; K. Cassity 3-5 0-0 6; B. Conklin 5-7 5-7 15; M. McCall 2-4 4-4 10; D. Evans 1-2 0-0 2; J. Jett 2-6 2-2 6; C. Ellis 2-4 0-0 5; R. Loe 3-5 2-2 9; C. Remekun 2-4 2-2 6; J. Manning 0-1 0-0 0; J. Barnett 1-2 0-0 3; G. Glaze 0-4 0-0 0; B. Daly 0-1 0-0 0; G. Gehlen 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-52 15-19 71.
Three-point goals: TXSO 2-10 (L. Johnson-Danner 0-2; O. Strong 1-6; D. Scott 0-1; J. Peters 1-1), SLU 6-15 (K. Mitchell 1-3; K. Cassity 0-1; C. Ellis 1-3; J. Barnett 1-2; J. Jett 0-1; R. Loe 1-1; M. McCall 2-4); Rebounds: TXSO 28 (J. Peters 5), SLU 35 (C. Remekun 5); Assists: TXSO 6 (D. Ellington 3), SLU 17 (K. Mitchell 5); Total Fouls -- TXSO 15, SLU 13; Fouled Out: TXSO-None; SLU-None.