Former MSU band members play in alumni band
East Lansing — Greg Pell called it a labor of love.
A love so deep he said he will continue the tradition until he is 90, then make a decision whether to hang up his trumpet.
Pell is the president of the Michigan State University Alumni band, a group of former band members who make their way to basketball and hockey games during winter break or any other time the regular Spartan brass band can’t answer the call.
On a recent Friday night, Pell and roughly 60 other alumni band members played for MSU head basketball coach Tom Izzo, school President Lou Simon and thousands of Spartans fans inside the bowels of the Breslin Center prior to the Big Ten home opener against Northwestern.
It was the annual Izzone Reunion, a chance for alumni to make their way back to campus and catch a game. It is also a chance for Pell and Co. to show that they still have it.
“Did I ever think I would be playing for my school band 50 years later? No,” laughed Pell, standing courtside pregame.
For the past 13 years, the alumni band has filled up its winter schedule with gigs inside Breslin and Munn Arena. They even play at the Great Lakes Invitational, the annual hockey tournament every December at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
Why do they do it? That’s simple: “Without a band, games just aren’t the same,” said saxophone player Jack Nelson.
Nelson, who played for the MSU band from 1968-74, said the alumni band plays anywhere from 12-14 games a winter with former Spartans from all over the country. In fact, he just picked up an instrument for an alumnus from Houston this week.
When they aren’t busy pumping up the crowd inside Breslin and Munn, they are playing tailgate and birthday parties, parades, weddings and even funerals.
The band even gets together for one football game each fall, which brings more than 300 former MSU musicians back to Spartan Stadium.
“It’s all volunteers and done out of love,” Nelson said.
Melissa Mackey, who played saxophone in the Spartan marching band from 1983-88, said she enjoys the camaraderie and hearing stories throughout the decades from her fellow musicians.
She even has a few of her own.
She said one of her most enjoyable memories was playing in the 1988 Rose Bowl. In her final performance for her alma mater, Mackey watched as Percy Snow and MSU knocked off the USC Trojans 20-17 in Pasadena. Her fondest flashback came at home, however.
“We beat Indiana for the Big Ten title in ’87,” she said with a smile. “When we beat them, it was the loudest I had ever heard Spartan Stadium. The students tore down the goalposts and everything, when you could do that sort of thing.
“It was awe-inspiring.”
Pell, who went to MSU from 1962-66, also played in a Rose Bowl in his final act for the marching band. The year was 1966, and the top-ranked Spartans came up short against the hometown team, UCLA. As a senior, he recalled the experience of the parade and the game, but the fun quickly turned to reality for Pell.
“If you were a male with a college degree, you were going to Vietnam,” he said.
Pell fought in Vietnam as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.
Pell also recalled when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Duff Daugherty’s Spartans were set to take on Illinois at home on Nov. 23. A day prior, the president was gunned down in downtown Dallas and the game was postponed.
“It was surreal,” Pell said. “Nobody played that weekend.”
On that recent Friday night, the band was all smiles. Their new goal is to provide memories for new members of the band. Each year, the alumni band raises money to buy the freshman letter jackets. They also give out two annual scholarships to music majors. They also raise funds to buy the band new instruments.
Working in conjunction with the MSU Museum, the group is also trying to preserve its history with an exhibit tracing the history of the band.
The recognition from its many listeners is the best part for Nelson. It keeps him coming back.
“We get a lot of feedback from the athletes,” he said. “We always get a thank you.”
Even famed college basketball analyst and personality Dick Vitale has paid his respects to the band.
“He said he was impressed with us,” Nelson laughed. “He even directed a number.”
When it comes to songs, there is one constant request. “Victory for MSU,” the Spartans fight song. Pell, Nelson and Mackey said they have played the song thousands of times and can even “play it in their sleep.”
And at funerals.