Separated by about 16 miles of land and water, Hampton University and Norfolk State are linked because of a football game played in 1963 — a Battle of the Bay rivalry that celebrates its 50th year Saturday at Armstrong Stadium.
In that time, a component of the rivalry has been the competition between the two university's bands, which developed in the early 1980s.
When the bands battle Saturday, they will continue a tradition with more twists and turns than a drum major's dance routine.
At its height, the competition for bragging rights went far beyond halftime and post-game shows. Over the years, the schools have shared staff members, routines and enough memories to fill the stands at both stadiums.
The Early Years
HU assistant band director Edward A. Ricks, a Norfolk State grad, remembers when the rivalry between the two bands started.
In the '80s, from Ricks' standpoint, the HU Marching Force was an afterthought. Then-HU director Sylvester Young was just building up the program.
Then-Norfolk State director Emory L. Fears began his tenure in 1973 and was building the band into a bigger entity.
"We were our own competition" Ricks said. "We wanted to be better than our last performance. So it really didn't matter who we were playing."
While the musical rivalry was in an infantile state, around 1983, Ricks says members of Hampton's band would spy on NSU practices.
"Back then we didn't have digital cameras so they had to put (the cameras) on their shoulders," he said with a chuckle.
"He called us a Xerox band," former HU student Bob Miller said of Fears. "We copied everything they did."
A new direction for HU's Marching Force started when Barney E. Smart became the director of the band in 1990.
"For some reason it just didn't come together until Mr. Smart got here," Ricks says. "He got here and it started to turn around. The execution was better, the musicianship was better."
The decade brought change for Norfolk State as well. Fears retired in 1990 and Alzie Walker took over as the director of the Spartan Legion, carrying on with the foundation that Fears built for 17 years.
In '94, current HU band director Rasan Holmes was a freshman at HU.
"I knew a lot about Florida A&M. I knew a lot about Bethune-Cookman [University]," the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., native said. "When you live in south Florida, everyone that is African-American and in high school either ends up migrating to Florida A&M or Bethune-Cookman for the most part."
Holmes quickly saw the amount of excitement a game against Norfolk State brought as the Force prepared to face the Legion that year.
"Everyone was really amped about it," Holmes said. "My perspective of it (at the time) was fairly neutral."
On game day, he said, the Legion marched into Armstrong Stadium and opened with "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," a tune often associated with classic horror scenes (think "Phantom of the Opera"), opening the eyes of the young trombonist.
"I was impressed with them because that was probably the first group that that year that really gave us a run for our money; as far as playing and execution and sound," Holmes said.
"It was at the point that I jumped into the rivalry."
With both bands always looking for ways to one-up each other, the schools came up with a new platform to compete. In 1998, Norfolk State's director O'Neill Sanford wanted to outshine the other group in every way possible.
"The philosophy in terms of quality of music and execution didn't change, but the philosophy in terms of the way we looked at our performance, that kind of changed," said Ricks, who was an assistant director at Norfolk State at that time. "(Sanford) felt that if the students were more involved in that, they would rise to the occasion a little more."
Then began the Friday night edition of the Battle of the Bay. In 1999, Hampton and Norfolk State competed against each other at Echols Arena on Norfolk State's campus. The idea was simple: two bands play their respective hearts out and one band leaves with bragging rights — at least until the next day's football game.
"What the crowd wanted to see, that they couldn't see at the game all the time was both bands go until they couldn't go anymore," Holmes said.
Holmes, a graduate assistant for HU at the time, and Ricks agree on one thing about the first Friday battle: The real winners were the fans.
"The indoor battle was an opportunity to showcase both bands in the best light that they could possibly be displayed. Both groups benefited financially. Both groups benefited from a fan base perspective and it brought people to the games."
Subsequently the rivalry took off. Students began building up the rivalry. The shows drew big crowds and the presentations became grandiose.
Both teams often would break the ground rules they set regarding time and structure in an effort to get in a final song. At one point, Holmes said performances featured motorcycles going through the arena, glow-in-the-dark flags and people on stilts.
"(The rivalry) just became this three ring circus," Holmes said. "It became a runaway train.
"Students began to put too much stock into the Friday battles and not enough stock into that performance at halftime that thousands of people would see and enjoy."
Holmes started to see a decline in the Force's performance on game day and in his students' overall performance in school. Some students were so invested in the Battle of the Bay that they would quit the band afterward to catchup on school work.
While Holmes was the assistant director, he mentioned to HU's director, Alfred Davis, that the Friday show was hindering the overall quality of the band's performance.
When Holmes became band director in 2010, he decided to discontinue the Friday show until he saw that his students were able to handle it properly.
"The tail, so to speak, started to wag the dog." Holmes said. "We need to be concerned with the quality that we put out, what our responsibilities are as bands and we need everyone here from Day 1 to Day 365."
The rivalry between both bands may only occur once a year, but both schools have spread their influence to local high schools in Hampton Roads.
"If you go across the water to I.C. Norcom High School you will hear baby Norfolk State. If you go to Phoebus High School you will hear baby Hampton," Holmes said.
Both schools recruit heavily from the area using summer camps and by reaching out to area high schools to provide inspiration for up and coming musicians. But the best way for students to see what the school's are all about is to see HU and NSU in head-to-head competition.
As it stands now there is still no Friday show, but both teams still prepare as they vigorously as they have in the past to win over the crowd during Saturday's halftime show.
Holmes says while putting out the best show possible is still a priority, for him and the Force the rivalry has been more about what transpires on the gridiron in recent years.
"What I'm most interested in now is; what does the football team want us to play when they're out there on the field," Holmes said. "I'll put the band on the sideline so we can win the game.