Battle of the Bay allows HU, NSU bands to showcase talent, school pride

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.