Instruments down, eyes up, more than 300 members of the Pride of the Southland Band sat Indian style in a semi-circle around their director Gary Sousa after completing a rehearsal of the Circle Drill at the intramural field on Wednesday.
Brief and stern, Sousa's message to the band rendered the group's full attention.
"I have a statement and a question," Sousa told the band. "The statement is this: You guys are the best, the best and we are all so very proud. The question is this, will you sing the alma mater with me?"
Responding with according jubilance, the Pride of the Southland Band stood and belted the alma mater, finishing it off with a shout of "Forever, Pride" and a fist pump from Sousa.
"When you attack our students, we're going to step up," Sousa said just moments later, "because that's what we have always been about."
Since 2011, when Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart began his tenure at Tennessee, Sousa feels like the band has indeed been under attack.
That sentiment rose to a new level on Saturday at Neyland Stadium during Tennessee's 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia when Sousa alleges that the band was told not to play UT's unofficial fight song, "Rocky Top."
"They decided it was time for them to play the pre-recorded canned music and dictated to the band that this would happen and that the band was not supposed to play," Sousa told The Daily Beacon. "We've never been told not to play 'Rocky Top' and we were told, 'you do not play 'Rocky Top.''"
A petition posted online by Pride of the Southland Band drum major Jessica Henderson circulated online Wednesday morning and sparked what evolved into a battle of dueling statements from the band and the UT athletic department on Wednesday.
According to the petition, "The University of Tennessee's athletic department has been slowly but surely chipping away at the Pride's traditions for quite some time now."
Specifically, the petition cites a "new rule" that the band no longer play UT's official fight song, "Down the Field," a difficulty in traveling to road games and an increased usage of non-live music played over the public address system at Neyland Stadium.
"Everyone needs to stand together now and clearly state, 'We will not take this. We know what we stand for, and we will hold true to our traditions,'" the petition reads.
Wednesday afternoon, a response statement was posted on utsports.com labeled as "UT Statement on Gameday Atmosphere."
The UT statement addressed the petition and specifically refuted the band's claim of being told not to play "Down the Field."
"Several claims made in a petition circulated Wednesday morning have limited or no basis in fact," the UT statement read.
"The University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Marching Band is a much valued and integral part of the university and the game day experience," the statement read. "Their pregame and halftime performances are outstanding and are part of the fabric of our great football traditions here at Tennessee. Once the game begins, the band is essential to achieving our goal of an electric atmosphere in Neyland Stadium."
UT's matchup with Georgia specifically garnered mention from the UT statement as "one of the best atmospheres in Neyland Stadium that we have experienced in a very long time."
"We applaud our coaches, student-athletes, fans, students, the band and our marketing staff for their collective efforts that resulted in a true home-field advantage," the statement continued.
From Sousa's perspective, however, the Georgia game stands as the most obvious manifestation to date of the issues the band is facing, specifically an instance that occurred while the Bulldogs warmed up on the field prior to the game.
"At the end of their warm-up, they turned and put their helmets in the air and started walking in a straight line, slowly across the field, which is unbelievably disrespectful to the University of Tennessee," Sousa said. "It's an 'in your face' kind of situation, and traditionally, what would have happened is that the band would have played 'Rocky Top' as loud as they could have played it, and the fans would have erupted and they would have shut them down, but we were about to play 'Rocky Top' and they were playing the rap music from the D.J., and we were told specifically 'do not play.'"
Instances like that, Sousa said, signify that Neyland Stadium is becoming closer to an NFL atmosphere.
"That started it," Sousa said. "But it happened many different times throughout the course of the game and it's just one of those things where you can only get pushed so long and then the students just said, 'We've had enough, why are we killing ourselves to be out here when we're basically being pushed out.'"
A statement provided to The Daily Beacon by band members claims that "the band has been locked in a bitter battle with athletics since Dave Hart, athletic director, arrived in 2011 regarding the travel of the band and game-day atmosphere and marketing in Neyland Stadium."
Sousa views Hart's role in the debate simply.
"Not as a villain, just that this is his decision," Sousa said before describing the band's relationship with Hart as "non-existent."
"Our relationship has been one of being dictated to," Sousa said.
As for a possible mediator in the debate, Sousa, who has held his current title as director of bands since 1997, is hopeful that UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek can help find a solution.
"I'm sure he (Cheek) will sit down and work out what is best for the university, and I think what's best for the university will be what's best for these students," Sousa said. "And that's what we want, we want what is best for the students, what is best for future students and that's what we're looking for. Because if it wasn't for you guys, we wouldn't be here and sometimes people at this university forget that, but we never do.
"It's always been about the students, and I think some people lose track of that. When there is money involved, people lose track of that."
According to the UT statement, the Pride of the Southland Band's operating budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year is $1,125,169, down $9,000 – or close to 1 percent – from a figure of $1,134,669 for the 2011-12 fiscal year.
The statement asserts those numbers as "attesting to the continued priority placed on investment in the band" in light of budget cuts affecting UT's other sports.
"Our band will always play a major role in the Tennessee football game day experience," the statement read, "and any insinuation to the contrary is inaccurate."
For Henderson – the highest ranking member of the band – the frustration is "an accumulation of all of the events."
She told The Daily Beacon she was not prodded by Sousa to create the petition.
"He is in no way responsible for how we are reacting," Henderson said. "I think he is just happy to see us go after and stand up for what we believe in."
She expressed that the petition, and its spread through social media, were simply a way to get the message out about the disgruntlement felt by the band.
"I know how this is coming off," Henderson said. "I really don't want it to be seen as, 'The band against the athletic department,'" Henderson said. "It was to the point where our director's emails weren't being replied to.
"They were not being acknowledged or seen, so we took it upon ourselves as students to make our voice heard."
The Pride of the Southland Band is scheduled to perform the Circle Drill at halftime of UT's next game on Oct. 19 when the Vols host South Carolina.
"We're completely open for compromising on certain things and talking it out," Henderson said. "We don't hate them. I know that's how it really seems, but we really want to work this out.
"We want what's best for the team and the school."