March 18, 2011
As the finals seconds ticked down in the Elite Eight against UConn during the 2006 NCAA tournament, the George Mason band, the Green Machine, started to play Bon Jovi's 1986 hit "Livin' on a Prayer" as the partisan crown of 19,718 at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. sang along.
It wasn't the first time the band had played the song, but it was perhaps the first time it brought goose bumps to everyone who heard it, including those who were watching George Mason's 88-86 overtime win on television. Mason players were standing on the press and scorers tables waving their jerseys to the crowd. Coach Jim Larranaga came rushing across the court to kiss his wife, Liz, across press row; Colonial Athletic Conference commissioner, Tom Yeager, cried.
The 11th-seeded Patriots defeated No. 1 UConn to earn a spot in the Final Four, the lowest seed to make the Final Four since LSU did it in 1986, but really, the first mid-major to do it since Indiana State and Penn did it in 1979.
And as the madness engulfed the arena and history was being made, the Green Machine was there, providing the memorable soundtrack.
"Over time we've tried out different things and some things are kind of popular for part of a season or whatever, but nothing has taken root the way that 'Livin' on a Prayer' did," said Mike Nickens, the director of George Mason's pep band. "Now, it can get overplayed and I try not to play it too much, but if I play it at the exact right time, it can really electrify the whole stadium."
Nickens took over the pep band in 2006 after it had gained national notoriety because of Mason's tournament run. Prior to that, it had always been student run and its songs, Mickens was told, weren't always planned. In the case of 'Livin' on a Prayer,' the band just thought it was the right time to play it, but had no idea that all of the George Mason supporters and -- as the Patriots got deeper into the tournament -- the rest of the arena, would be singing along. It ultimately became the unofficial theme song of the basketball team.
In the years since the Green Machine shared the spotlight with its basketball program, it's continued to push the envelope with songs that not only engage those in the arena, but also keep up with the times. The pep band medleys often heard in basketball arenas aren't gone, but they've been overshadowed by daring mashups of different Rage Against the Machine songs, and Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop" mixed with Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind."
The Rage Against the Machine mix, which combines "Bulls on Parade" and "Killing in the Name" has had more than 900,000 hits on YouTube and has put the Green Machine back in the spotlight again as it joins the basketball team in Cleveland for its first round NCAA tournament game against Villanova.
"If you watch that Rage video on YouTube, the arrangement is OK, it's an OK tune, but if a marching band had covered that or any other band had done it, it might not have been responded to," said Jeremy Freer, the band's assistant director, who came up with the Rage medley. "I think what people respond to is the energy of the group, the fact that they're having fun, and making good music because there's such a stigma on seriousness and execution in a lot of other ensembles. In this one, we execute, we sound pretty good and most importantly we create an environment where the students can be creative and actually cut loose a little bit."
Working outside the box has become a staple of the Green Machine. While it does keep some musicians on scholarships, several of the band's members are walk-ons, if you will. Some are members of the community who miss playing. Some are high school kids looking for extra practice. Others are former members who are still around town. Nickens, who as known as Doc Nix, doesn't turn anyone away. The band roster is about 150 deep and they get nearly 60 for basketball games.
And Nickens' suits have also become a signature of the band. The long coats, which he has in green, gold and pinstripe among other colors, make Nickens looks like he's heading to church or the club rather than a basketball game. The fedora and cane, which has a giant green jewel on the top, provide the finishing touches.
"The assumption is that I get these suits made and then they're shocked when I tell them, no, I went to the mall and found it at the store," Nickens said. "There are stores that have these suits and I just go looking for them and I find them. I guess I would imagine that if you're not looking for something like that, you might walk right past it and never even register in your brain that it's there.
"I'm just sort of having fun playing dress up there. Why wouldn't I have a flashy cane to go with the outfit?"
George Mason will bring 30 members to Cleveland this weekend and will try to play some of their staple songs without the use of electronic instruments or vocals, which are banned by the NCAA during tournament time. And with any luck, they'll be sharing the spotlight with their team once again.
"It's definitely very exciting especially in the wake of the YouTube stuff blowing up the way it did," senior band member David Roth said. "It's kind of nice having something unique that kind of catches people's ear. I remember after one of the tournaments a few years ago, the basketball coach came out and the very first thing he said to people in the interview room was that 'We at George Mason have a band that rocks.'
"We're super excited to play, but also to be there with the team and kind of be like a traveling fan section. So, in addition to playing all the music that we do, we're also a bunch of really excited basketball fans."