The Magic of Music in Motion: USF’s Herd of Thunder marching band marks a grand tradition in its 25th year

Bright midday sunlight shines on members for the Herd of Thunder brass section dressed in black shorts with USF polos and baseball caps.

Brass musicians perform in the HOT Band Road Show, a pregame tradition at USF Football’s home games. [Photo: Christina Klein Photography]


JUST BEYOND THE DIN OF AFTERNOON rush-hour traffic on Fowler Avenue, a jam of a different kind takes shape on a sprawling USF practice field. Overhead, gray and white clouds billow against a blue backdrop, a vibrant sideshow to the cacophony of brass, woodwinds and percussion warming up beside fluttering Color Guard flags. It is as if the sky has heard the Herd and wants in on the act.

Welcome to another evening practice for USF’s marching band, the Herd of Thunder, aka HOT, one of up to four weekly three-hour rehearsals during football season. After a long day of classes and part-time jobs, students toting instrument cases, flags, rifles and sabers converge on Fowler Field just before 6 p.m. to rehearse before the Bulls’ next home football game at Raymond James Stadium.

For the past 25 years, the HOT band has united students and staff and nurtured an enduring bond, with friendships that last long after the final halftime show.

Outwardly, the Fowler Field scene has changed since the summer of 1998, when USF’s first Herd of Thunder practiced “The Mission,” an anthem composed by its inaugural director, Sid Haton. That initial band camp under a sweltering summer sun drew some 160 members. Today, the Herd of Thunder marks its silver anniversary with numbers exceeding 350.

Their formations have become more intricate, their performances more sophisticated, and they now sometimes rehearse in the new, air-conditioned Porter Family Indoor Performance Facility. Yet, in other ways they remain the same. They still stampede from the stadium tunnel onto the field for their pregame show. And they still play “The Mission” at the end of every game.

Cherished traditions can be created only when one invested generation passes them along to the next. In 2009, HOT alumni were invited for the first time to join the band on the field during the Homecoming game. Nineteen enthusiastic Bulls answered the call. This year, the annual Homecoming reunion performance drew a record 158 former HOT members.

“As corny as it sounds, the band acts like a family,” says Director of Athletic Bands Trevor Butts, ’15 and MM ’20. “The ties the students establish throughout band camp starting in freshman year remain very strong.”

The Homecoming game against Florida Atlantic University is front and center during this early fall practice. Butts, a HOT band alumnus who served as drum major, has gathered his musicians on the field for a huge huddle. The performance will include music from the first Herd of Thunder show in 1999, including “Maleguana” and songs from “Zorro.”

“We have a lot of time to really learn and perfect this show, but we’re learning this show as well as our funk show,” he calls out to the group, before directing walk-throughs.

Former USF President Betty Castor and former HOT band director Matthew McCutcheon share a hug on the field at Raymond James stadium.

Former HOT band director Matthew McCutcheon hugs former USF President Betty Castor — the “mother” of USF’s marching band — as current band director Trevor Butts, left, and President Rhea Law look on. The band paid tribute to Castor as part of its 25th anniversary celebration. [Photo: Christina Klein Photography]

Nearby, the Herd’s 46-member Color Guard and featured twirlers sit on the concrete floor of an open pavilion, listening intently to their unit’s director, Liz Bannon, ’10, Life Member. She’s a HOT alumna. Her parents, both members of Tampa Bay orchestras, and brother are all USF music alumni.

Bannon played various musical instruments and danced growing up. But in high school, she glimpsed her future when she saw USF’s competitive Winter Guard unit perform. “That was the moment I knew I wanted to go to USF and be part of that,” she says.

She enrolled at USF in 2004, joined the HOT Color Guard and soon won a spot on the Winter Guard for the next four years. Even after becoming a schoolteacher, she remained connected, joining the staff in 2012 and taking over as Color Guard director in 2017. Today, she works as the alumni relations officer for the College of Public Health, and continues to work parttime with the Color Guard.

“There’s something I tell the students on day one of rehearsal every year,” Bannon says. “‘If you do it right, then the people you don’t even know yet in this room will be in your wedding. Or you’ll be marrying them.’

“Constantly through the years you point out, ‘There’s another USF band or guard wedding!’ What marching band does — what music itself does — is connect people. Across majors, across backgrounds, across beliefs. For our students, when they show up to their first class as a freshman, they already have 350 people on campus who have their back.”

• • •

Liz Bannon and Mary Dooley smile for the camera.

Liz Bannon, left, Color Guard alumna and current instructor, remains close to squad founder Mary Dooley.

USF’s Color Guard founder, Mary Dooley, ’02, Life Member, can catch practices these days from the third floor of the Patel Center, where she works as an executive assistant in the office of President Rhea Law.

Dooley had been teaching and directing the color guard at Gainesville High School when she received a call from Haton, the band director hired by then-President Betty Castor. Dooley started the guard in 1999, turning it into an elite unit, and in 2002, founded the USF Winter Guard, regarded today as one of the best in the nation.

She worked through the tenure of second HOT band director, Michael Robinson, and his successor, Matthew McCutchen, ’06, who oversaw a leap in participation and overall caliber. “Each of them asked me what kept me in my role, and I said, ‘You’ll soon recognize what keeps me here: It’s the students,’” Dooley recalls. “They are so special and so dedicated. I probably would have retired after 10 years, but I stayed another three because it was so hard to leave the students.”

Flags bearing the USF Bull U logo and the word Alumni twirl in the air above both current and alumni members of the USF color guard while Bulls fans look on from the stands at Raymond James stadium.

Color Guard alumni, identifiable by their “Alumni” flags, perform with the 2023-24 squad at Homecoming 2023. [Photo: Christina Klein Photography]

Their commitment runs deep. HOT band and guard members participate in many ensembles, including indoor concert performances and Rumble for basketball games. Color Guard members who also participate in Winter Guard average 35 hours of practice and performance time a week when seasons overlap, with semester dues paid by students to cover equipment and gear. Each HOT member receives class credit and a small semester-end talent stipend.

One HOT alumna has achieved noteworthy heights. In 2018, former drum major Melissa “Mely” Salguero, ’09, won the Grammy Music Educator of the Year Award. The Herd of Thunder Marching Band helped her overcome her shyness, she said at the time.

“Standing in front of all those marching members and leading the band helped prepare me for the day I stepped into my classroom for the first time,” she said. “USF truly helped me become the leader I am today.”

And there are other, equally rich, rewards.

“When we march onto the Raymond James field, I can only describe it as electric,” says band co-captain Emma Nelson. “There’s no other feeling like it, to see all the students and Bulls fans cheering and super excited. There’s so much energy.”

Megan Silvey, a senior and Color Guard section leader from Daytona Beach, says it’s the best support system imaginable.

“We’re all there for each other.”

Then she pauses, her voice breaking and tears welling. “I think this program will be something I’ll always remember. It’s something that made me who I am and has given me the best friends I’ve ever had.”

By 7:15 p.m., the band members have taken their positions and begun meticulous walk-throughs for the Homecoming show. Students memorize their music, choreography and timing as Butts directs from a tower high above the field.

As they practice, it becomes clear why original band director Haton, who died in 2008, established a “sky appreciation” moment during evening rehearsals. The horizon is now glowing a fiery orange and yellow, streaked by gray and blue.

And the Herd of Thunder marches on.

Help the Herd of Thunder raise $25,000 to mark its 25th anniversary. All proceeds will be used to replace worn equipment.