Members of West Chester University’s Incomparable Golden Rams Marching Band wouldn’t let their guard down—or maybe it’s just that they were a bit stunned. After a headlining exhibition performance at Rutherford, New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium for the USBands Open Class National Championships in November 2022, they were told to remain in place for a special announcement. They’d come up roses—literally—in the form of a rare invitation to march in the internationally televised Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, on New Year’s Day 2024.
Informed a month earlier, WCU senior Tim Spiotta was sworn to secrecy. “It was difficult keeping it under wraps, but there was enough vested interest in making the announcement a great experience that no one wanted it leaked. We wanted to maximize the moment,” says Spiotta, one of five junior band directors. “But they’re all trained as performers to stand there emotionless. Close up, we could see the excitement on their faces, but in the stands it came off as an emotionless response. Once out of the stadium, the news began to dawn on them.”
Peyton Brillhart was legitimately in the dark. “Honestly, I didn’t know about the Rose Parade,” says the second-year drum major. “Now I realize how big a deal it is. It’s drilled in as every band kid’s dream.”
This year marks the 135th Rose Parade. The WCU marching band is just a year shy of that milestone at 134 years old. “It’s off by one year, but it’s still amazing,” says Todd Marcocci, the band’s artistic director, choreographer and color guard director for the past 36 years.
This year marks the 135th Rose Parade. The WCU marching band is just a year shy of that milestone at 134 years old. “It’s off by one year, but it’s still amazing,” says Todd Marcocci, the band’s artistic director, choreographer and color guard director.
A 1987 band alum who lives in West Chester, Marcocci was among those instrumental in establishing the innovative look and theme for the Golden Rams’ Rose Parade appearance—one that necessitated a $1 million fundraising goal. (At press time, some $849,000 had been collected from 1,200 donors.) WCU will be the first band in this historic parade to carry a walking mural, essentially a “Postcards from Philadelphia” storyboard that shares the legacy of the region. It will be paired with iconic Philly-centric music.
The mural is made up of 30 flags measuring 14 feet high and four feet wide. When raised on 18-foot metal poles, they depict the Liberty Bell, the Rocky statue, Independence Hall, the Philadelphia Flower Show, Brandywine Battlefield, Longwood Gardens, Valley Forge National Historical Park, the Chester County Hot Air Balloon Festival and more. It took three proposals to gain parade committee approval within the event’s overall theme, “Celebrating a World of Music: The Universal Language.”
“Local won out,” Marcocci says. Musically, the televised portion of WCU’s performance will feature the “Theme From Rocky,” Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” and John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March.” To meet requirements, lead banners and panels will be made entirely of organic materials like cranberry and black onion seeds, yellow split peas, brown rice, risotto, strawflowers, purple statice flowers, parsley flakes, and flax seed. They required 27 gallons of glue and a heap of volunteers over a long October weekend to build.
The week before the parade was reserved for attaching fresh flowers—some 15,000 of them in 22 varieties, a Rose Parade record for a marching band.
Band members will don new uniforms, and each member’s hat will have two Freedom Roses representing Pennsylvania, which was the second colony to ratify the Constitution. “We’ve done our history work,” Marcocci says. “Thematically, everything ties together.”
WCU kicked off its “Road to the Roses” journey this past September. Tournament of Roses president Alex Aghajanian attended a band rehearsal, then the season’s first 2023 home football game, presenting official Rose Parade pins and posters and a Tournament of Roses flag to Christopher Fiorentino, WCU’s president. In turn, the City of Philadelphia presented Aghajanian with an engraved replica of the Liberty Bell.
During the 38-31 win against Gannon, the band unveiled its halftime show, “In Bloom,” with themes and music tied to its Rose Parade appearance. On display was the West Chester University seal in dried flowers, along with artifacts and sketches of plans for the Rose Parade. “The band will be more like a float coming down the street,” says Chris Hanning, dean of WCU’s Wells School of Music, who will be among the 400 attending from the university. “This is a step along the path of this band’s trajectory over many, many years.”
Interestingly, about two-thirds of the marching band’s 336 members pursue majors in something other than music—60 different majors, to be exact. “So many come just because they want to march in this band,” says Hanning. “Enrollment applications jump when we tour. It’s definitely one of our top recruiting tools.”
The first reference to a marching band on campus can be traced to the institution’s beginnings as a school for training teachers. Russell L. Sturzebecker’s Centennial History of West Chester State College notes that the Normal Band organized on Nov. 22, 1889, principally to furnish march music for a student military company. Decades later, the band supported school activities, including a 1914 baseball game against Millersville that’s documented with a postcard.
When the school became West Chester State Teachers College in 1927, the band also evolved. In the 1930s, S. Powell Middleton’s leadership oversaw new military-style uniforms for a 50-member bunch that soon included a girl’s trumpet corps. Following World War II, membership grew to 65. Successful football teams in the 1940s—including bowl appearances in 1947 and 1948—solidified the band’s national reputation.
By the early 1970s, James Wells had been hired as director, and the band swelled to over 200 members, including an all-female color guard. An invitation to pro football’s 1970 AFL Championship Game and other marquee performances marked that decade.
The school was christened West Chester University in 1983, and the Golden Rams Marching Band added “Incomparable” to its name. By 1986, they’d marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City for the first time. Under alum John Villella’s direction in the ’90s, membership grew to over 300. More high-profile invitations followed—to NFL games, the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade and a Philadelphia Phillies’ World Series game.
Andrew Yozviak’s tenure as director began in 2007. It featured a return to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2015, plus regular appearances at Bands of America events and featured exhibition performances. It’s a trend Yozviak’s protégé, Adam Gumble, has continued as the latest director of athletic bands. In 2019, the Golden Rams became the first Division II band to win the Sudler Trophy, the Heisman of the collegiate band world.
“There have been many peaks to the mountain, but the great thing is that the trajectory continues to go up,” says Gumble, a 2005 alum who was hired in 2018. “That’s been the goal—to keep the nose of the plane above the horizon.”
So it’s no surprise that the Rose Parade has been a long-term goal. “It’ll be the most people we’ve ever performed for—a million live along the route, and between 24 and 30 million watching worldwide,” Gumble says. “It’d be hard not to call this the finest achievement we’ve had.”