The University of Dayton loves to strike up the band − anywhere and for anyone. Led by director Dr. Willie Morris, the Flyer Pep Band displayed this unselfish spirit and flair for sportsmanship in aiding the men’s basketball team from Fairleigh Dickinson University to its shining moment at the NCAA Tournament in March.
Dr. Morris and the band traveled from Dayton to Columbus, Ohio, to play for the Knights in their match against top-seeded Purdue. In the process, they became integral to one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
“We found people who wanted to be part of our journey,” says Jason Young, senior associate athletics director at Fairleigh Dickinson. “You had 18-22 year olds and an instructor who could get them excited and prepared for our moment. That’s where the selflessness comes through. They spent so many hours preparing for that game and driving there, to perform for a team that wasn’t their own.”
While the band’s generous spirit enjoyed a corner of the national spotlight during the Knights magical upset, Dr. Morris and the band have made a habit of helping other teams. Since 2007, they have routinely aided competitors without a band in the preliminary round of the NCAA Tournament known as the First Four, hosted annually at Dayton. Among the schools was Fairleigh Dickinson, in 2019.
“It fits our Marianist character of giving back and serving,” Dr. Morris says of Dayton, founded by the Society of Mary in 1850. “You don’t have a band? That’s OK. We’ll help you out. One year we got to sub for three bands. We ended up having two groups of my students playing against each other.”
This year was different, however, when Young made two requests: First, could the Flyers play during their First Four game versus Texas Southern? Dayton was on spring break, so Dr. Morris supplemented band members who could hustle back to campus with musicians from nearby Carlisle High School.
Second, could the band learn a tune on the fly? Young found piano sheet music in his desk that he suspected was the school’s forgotten fight song. Dr. Morris gave the piano music to one of his students, Jacob Slomko, to quickly arrange for the instruments of the band. They learned it even quicker and worked with FDU’s cheer squad, who choreographed routines to the song.
After defeating Texas Southern 84-61 in Dayton, the Knights headed an hour up the road to face top-seeded Purdue, and Young asked the Flyer band to accompany them. With musicians adorned in FDU’s Going Dancing shirts and brandishing plastic swords that Dr. Morris bought at a novelty store, the inspired Knights – who also had a really good game plan – held a 32-31 lead at half. The game seesawed until the final few minutes, when Fairleigh Dickinson seized momentum that led to a 63-58 victory. “The band was into it,” Morris said. “It was so intense, I kept getting closer to the court, and the ref had to tell me to back up.”
National media couldn’t get enough of Fairleigh Dickinson’s historical achievement, but the Flyer Pep Band’s role was hard to miss. “We were overwhelmed by the press, but I get it,” Dr. Morris says. “It shows that sportsmanship extends off the court or field.”
FDU asked Dayton to stay for the Knights next game, a 78-70 loss to the eventual regional champion, Florida Atlantic. “The crowd got into the chants, and it brought goosebumps,” Young says. “Unfortunately we didn’t beat them, but you could feel the excitement and energy building around the team.”
Young and Dr. Morris hope the enthusiasm continues to build, thanks in part to the band’s studio recording of the fight song that can be used for all FDU sports. The Knights cheerleaders also have devised cheers and routines to accompany it.
“We don’t have words yet,” Young says. “We’ll have to make those up on our own.”
But just in case, Dr. Morris says, “We’re always here to help.”