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Southern Pride director packs for Southern Miss
McKenzie carries memories of exciting Georgia Southern seasons
W GSUband McKenzie directs
Perched above the field, Dr. Colin McKenzie is seen directing the Southern Pride. - photo by Special

As Dr. Colin McKenzie packs to leave as director of Georgia Southern University’s marching band for a job with the same titles in the larger band and music programs at the somewhat smaller University of Southern Mississippi, he is finding room for big memories.

In his five years leading the Southern Pride Marching Band, its members – and  the GSU Eagles football team – took him to some memorable places, from a nationally televised performance by student musicians on “The Late Show” to the Eagles’ win at the 2015 GoDaddy Bowl, their first invitational bowl game.

But the memory McKenzie recalls most colorfully is from November 2013, when the Eagles surprised almost everyone by beating the University of Florida 26-20. It was both the first time the Gators lost to a Football Championship Subdivision school and the Eagle’s last FCS game before their move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“I’ve sat back and just reflected on that for a while, thinking about how special and meaningful that was,” McKenzie said, “not just for our students in the band, not just for the football team, but for the whole community for that to happen. Just incredible!  Absolutely incredible -- and that we were there and a part of it – I guarantee you, there was not a dry eye in the band that day.”

He recalls “high-rising emotion” in the Swamp that day, with the increasing realization that a victory was possible. All the elements were there, he said, with so many Statesboro and Georgia Southern folks having made the trip, the cheerleaders cheering and the actual, winged eagle named Freedom in attendance. But the absolute high point was the end of the game, when band members cheered so loudly, he said, that afterward they seemed unable to speak.

“Which I didn’t mind for the bus ride home,” McKenzie said. “But it was a great day, really great experiences.”

Now making transitional trips between Statesboro and the Southern Miss hometown of Hattiesburg, McKenzie still speaks of Georgia Southern as “we” when talking about this and other experiences, such as the GoDaddy Bowl victory and the band’s performance there.

“What I’m most proud about in all of these situations is that our students represented Georgia Southern and the state of Georgia so well when they go and do these things, and they represent all of the things that are great about the institution, and from such a diverse population within the student body,” he said.

McKenzie, 33, is originally from Columbus, Ga. He came to Georgia Southern five years ago from Michigan State University. He completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree there after serving as one of the band directors at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

 

On to Southern Miss

The University of Southern Mississippi enrolls about 15,000 students, compared to Georgia Southern’s 20,500. But its School of Music, which McKenzie called “one of the flagship programs at the institution,” typically has about 450 students majoring in music. Its band program was founded in 1920.

“So, the opportunities that that kind of environment provides are exciting to me, but not to say at all that I haven’t had wonderful opportunities at Georgia Southern,”  he said. “It’s just an opportunity for something different and getting to work within a band program that’s getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary.”

The marching band, called the Pride of Mississippi, enrolls about 300 members, according to both McKenzie and the university’s website. At Georgia Southern, the marching band was “teetering around the 200 mark” when McKenzie arrived, he said, and now has about 225 members.

“So I feel pretty good about that,” he said. “That number is a real healthy number for a school of our size, particularly given that there’s not a lot of scholarship help for students in the marching band.”

Georgia Southern’s Department of Music typically has about 150 students enrolled in music as their major area of study and about 100 minoring in its subjects, said a secretary in the department. But the marching band is only a part of the overall band program, which draws many students who neither major nor minor in music.

 

Really 3 directors

Dr. Robert Dunham, soon starting his 11th year as GSU director of bands, is administrator for all six bands. Together, they involve about 500 students annually, Dunham said.

McKenzie’s purview, as associate director of bands and director of athletic bands, included the basketball pep band and the volleyball pep band, in addition to the marching band. But Assistant Director of Bands Dr. Tim Kintzinger directs the volleyball band, while McKenzie worked directly with the basketball band.

On the concert side, Dunham conducts the top band, called the symphonic wind ensemble. McKenzie conducted the middle-expertise wind symphony, and Kintzinger conducts the third concert band, called simply the university band.

In fact, McKenzie was Georgia Southern’s first associate director of bands. Dr. Matt Fallin, who was director of athletic bands for about 19 years previously, stepped down from that role in 2010 but remains in the music department as professor of percussion. Fallin went from “doing two full-time jobs” to just one, Dunham said, and top university officials agreed to expand the band program to three directors.

“So it was kind of an opportunity to grow the whole band program, and we were fortunate to have Colin come in, and he really did a fantastic job in that position,” Dunham said.

Asked about the Southern Pride’s this past year, McKenzie noted some community service initiatives. Along with other organizations, band members helped sponsor a Habitat for Humanity house, raising “a few thousand dollars” with a benefit concert in November and volunteering several weekends in its construction through the spring.

Students also volunteered in the Statesboro Soup Kitchen hosted by First United Methodist Church. A few even signed up to be matched  with patients in need of bone marrow transplants, and one first-year band student traveled to Washington D.C. and went through the process, becoming a marrow donor and saving someone’s life, McKenzie said.

“Just from a musical standpoint we had a terrific year as well, but the marching band is about more than just making music out there, it’s about being a community and a family,” he said.

 

‘Aging Eagles’ support

Throughout his five years, McKenzie and his bands have enjoyed support from an unusually named booster group, the Aging Eagles. Some of the founding members are not alumni, but people of retirement age who regularly attended Eagles games and realized the band had no booster group of its own.

Now a nonprofit corporation, the group has raised money and in-kind donations for equipment, game day meals and other perceived needs of the band. The group now has about 150 members, including alumni and band parents.

McKenzie welcomed the volunteers’ support, said Aging Eagles President Paula Tompkins, who majored in music at the Ohio State University.

“Colin has a kind of gift, that he was just superb musically, he demanded perfection from the kids and the kids respected him. …,” Tompkins said “There were hours and hours of rehearsal that they did and they did not resent doing it. They loved him, and they loved each other. He created a good team, kind of like the football team.”

Georgia Southern will name an interim athletic bands director for 2016-17, probably by July 1, Dunham said. A national search for a long-term director will be conducted next year, he said.

Meanwhile, McKenzie plans to be in Hattiesburg on a regular basis in early July. His wife, East Georgia State College Library Director Amanda McKenzie, will be joining him there later.

 

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

 

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