By Zach Joachim
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – In 2016, The Washington Post published an article headlined “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 members of the Peppas at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In on-the-record interviews and emails, at least three former Peppas and two current band members, as well as two members of the VCU Athletics administration and an assortment of fans and alumni, described an environment wrought with turmoil and unresolved issues.
“We are complete garbage,” said Nick Rivera, a VCU senior and a member of the Peppas the past four years. “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.”
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. VCU then hired Duane Coston, the band director at Monticello High School in Charlottesville, as director of the Peppas.
Assistant Athletic Director Vaughan Moss admitted the transition has been far from smooth but asserted that students and the 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.”
VCU Athletics Director Ed McLaughlin dismissed the criticism directed at Coston.
“Duane has brought professionalism to the position and continued the tradition of the Peppas being one of the premier pep bands in the country. Based on overwhelming feedback I continue to receive from our Peppa Student Advisory Board, students in the band, donors and fans, the atmosphere surrounding the Peppas is very positive,” McLaughlin said in a statement.
“We have addressed questions and complaints that we have received. Some of them were misunderstandings, some were helpful in improving the experience of the students in the band and some were complete fabrications and exaggerations.”
Coston echoed McLaughlin’s confidence in the band’s direction.
“It is my privilege to work with a group of musicians as talented as The Peppas. It’s my mission to support our members and continue to elevate the band. While a change in leadership typically requires a transition period, I’m proud of the way our students continue to represent this band with passion and class while providing an unbelievable game-day experience for VCU’s student-athletes,” Coston said in a statement.
But according to Rivera and former Peppas members Jordan Davis, Samantha Silva and Will Anderson, the band has developed significant problems over the past two years. The three ex-members said they have quit or been “pushed out” of the band since Coston was hired.
“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.”
All four students said Coston had a lower energy level than Kopacsi. An overall loss of spirit, community and collective empathy has left the Peppas devoid of “pep,” Rivera 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,” Rivera said.
Silva and Anderson echoed Rivera’s depiction of a band that may have lost not only its longtime director but, more importantly, its highly touted spirit.
“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 the band’s direction under Coston including insensitive comments, inconsistent schedules and unrealistic expectations.
For example, all four independently 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 (for) him,” Rivera said.
Coston and VCU Athletics were asked about that incident but declined to address it in their statements.
Silva, Anderson and Davis said Coston and VCU Athletics made a collective effort to excommunicate them because they complained. All three former Peppas said they were ostracized and barred from registering for classes because they hadn’t turned in jerseys.
“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.”
“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 Coston was hired as the obvious choice to succeed Kopacsi.
“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.
But Bobby Stepp, a four-year tuba player for the Peppas, said those growing pains have lingered.
“The heart & energy of the band is missing,” Stepp said in an email. “But the heart of the band wasn’t Ryan, it was us.”
He said the most talented Peppas have grown disillusioned. “For me, the band has turned from something truly magical into just something interesting to do on the weekends,”
Rivera said he has remained in the band so younger students could experience a semblance of the energetic environment the Peppas were once known for.
“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.”