Flyer Pep Band an important part of the Dayton basketball experience

Dr. Willie Morris, the band director, approaching 30 years at the university

Dr. Willie Morris wrote, “Go Dayton Flyers,” around 2006. He knew it wouldn’t be an immediate hit. Every piece of music he introduces at UD Arena with the Flyer Pep Band takes a while to make its mark. What has become the trademark song of the band took off faster than most.

“In six weeks, everyone was doing it,” Morris said, “but the band and cheerleaders had to do it first, and then the students had to decide to do it.”

The song has become such a big part of the Dayton basketball experience — there are probably fans who use its main notes as a ringtone — it’s easy to forget where it all began.

“Everybody says, ‘You stole that from Georgia,’” Morris said, “and I say, “Well, they do part of it. They have, ‘Go Georgia Bulldogs.’ But I heard this melody that kind of fit Dayton and Flyers, and then I added the spelling the words at the end.”

The familiarity of the music led the University of Dayton to use the chant in helping combat the coronavirus in 2020.

”The perfect 20-second tune for handwashing? The Dayton Flyers Athletics cheer,” the university said in a Facebook post.

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Bringing the energy

“Go Dayton Flyers” has such a connection to Morris fans will see him at the mall and start chanting it. It’s part of a legacy he started building after arriving at the university in 1993. He’s approaching his 30th anniversary, and the Flyer Pep Band he leads is as strong as ever.

Morris brought flair to the band. For example, band members have a collection of hats they wear.

“I think that it’s changed a little because of the students,” said Morris, explaining his style. “Lots of high energy. Lots of fun music. Lots of gimmicks. I like the students to be seen in front of the crowd. Back in the early days, we used to go on the floor at halftime and pregame and dance and do routines.”

These days, the band is confined to a section of the stands behind the basket on the north side of the arena. Morris makes the band stick out even if it doesn’t get to move around.

“I’ve always thought, ‘Why did pep bands just have to play? Why can’t they be more of a part of what’s going on?’” he said. “So we have the hats, and we have our own cheers, and the students have been began to take over their sections and do their own things. I look up every now and then like, ‘Whoa, that was kind of neat.’ So we’re always looking for new things and things that make us interesting visually, as opposed to just how we play.”

Faith Burns, of Marietta, and Abigail Matney, of Lexington, Ohio, joined Morris in December for an interview with the Dayton Daily News about the band. The conversation touched on a number of topics related to how the band plays and what it’s like to be in the band.

Burns and Matney both play the piccolo. Burns is a senior in her second year with the band. Matney, also a senior, has been in the band for four years.

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When Burns starts to talk about the band, she first mentions the hats. Each member brings a bag to the game with all their “fun little hats,” and they rotate them throughout the game. They have a basketball hat that makes them look like they’re wearing pumpkins on their heads, one with a basketball net on the end, a floppy hat that looks like an airplane, a clown hat that has a propeller on top and a hat with the same goggles Rudy, the mascot, wears.

“There was a game I remember pulling out different hats and putting them on,” Burns said, “and a student behind me was like, ‘How many hats do you have in that bag? That’s so cool. Can I try one on?’ I couldn’t let them, but it’s really fun being silly and acting goofy and having that fun release after working or studying the whole week.”

When she’s not playing her instrument, Matney works on the floor with Morris, wearing a headset so she can communicate with him when it gets loud, as it does.

“He’ll walk up and just be like, ‘Here, if I’m not back, just handle this. I’m going to go do stuff,’” Matney said, “and he’ll go interact with thee cheerleaders and the crowd. My family got the pleasure of getting to their first game this year and watching him, they said, ‘There are times that Dr. Morris may have more control of that crowd than anyone else in that arena.’ He makes it fun for us. We know when we show up to a game that it is game time and Dr. Morris is going to be crazy, and it’s kind of our motto that if we don’t go crazy, we’re going to go home and none of us want to go home. So we decided to just join in the craziness with him.”

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Lighting up the arena

Morris perhaps is most well known for wearing a jacket with hundreds of red and blue lights that can form patterns and spell out phrases.

“I get asked about that all the time,” Morris said. “I went to a restaurant last night, and someone said, ‘Oh, it’s you. Where’s your jacket?’ Like I wear it around all the time.”

Morris first wore a special jacket in 2012. It was more like a suit coat with red and blue sequins. It was specially made by a local seamstress who was also a season-ticket holder.

Then Morris was watching a show set in Las Vegas and saw someone wearing a jacket with lights. He figured out who made it and sent his jacket there to have lights installed.

Then Morris took the jacket to the next level by sending it to a company in Korea. That’s how the current jacket came to be. He brings it out for special occasions or big games, though one could argue every game these days at UD Arena is special. The men’s basketball team will have sold out 44 straight games by the end of this season. It’s the second straight season UD has sold out every game, and that had never happened before the 2020-21 season.

“It really is something different,” Burns said, “because I come from a small high school so you just kind of like sit in the corner and play. But having the energy of a student section behind me or hearing the opposing team on the benches or having the rest of the arena cheering, it kind of makes me want to participate more and be a part of that.”

“My high school didn’t have a pep band,” Matney said, “so I was a cheerleader instead on the floor. It’s very different trying to create that energy and then being able to go to UD Arena and that energy already be there. Even before people show up, you can just feel something in that arena.”

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Breaking boundaries

The band starts to come together in August when the executive board meets to lay out the schedule for the year ahead. In September, Morris and the band members start recruiting on campus. They have auditions in the last week of September and start practicing every Sunday in October.

The band has 110 members this year, which is the largest number Morris has ever had. It’s divided into a red band and blue band. They split up the men’s and women’s games, though sometimes members of both bands attend games.

The band’s website lays out its identity.

“What Makes Us The Best Damn Pep Band In The Land?” the site reads. “To us, it’s not just about making music. It’s about making noise. To us, it’s not just about how we look, but who we represent. sk any member what it means to be a part of the Flyer Pep Band, and they will tell you it means to ‘Go Crazy or Go Home.’ Living up to this motto for the past 40 years, we strive to break the boundaries of what it means to be a pep band. And that’s what makes us the best.”

Morris was inspired to get into music by his dad, who was a high school band director in Greensboro, N.C. Morris came to UD after teaching at the University of Alabama for four years. Prior to that, he worked at Alcorn State University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in music education at East Carolina, his master’s at Stephen F. Austin and his doctorate at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

Morris had no intention of staying at Dayton as he long as he has, but he’s an Ohioan now and a fixture at UD.

“When you have an opportunity to work with young men and women like Faith and Abby here and all the great students,” Morris said, “it just grabs part of your heart. What I’ve noticed here at UD is they don’t come here just to get a degree, they come here for the sense of community. They might not know that word when they get here, but it kind of grabs hold of them. Then they grab hold everybody else around them. They’re great students to teach and great students just to be around. They’re inspirational. And they’re willing to do crazy stuff like, ‘Here put this hat on, and let’s go scream at the basketball game.”

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