When Randall Coleman arrived at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in July 2021, the Marching Mocs band had a little more than 30 members.
It was something of a change from his previous position as associate director of the University of Alabama’s Million Dollar Band. It fields 400 members.
“When I took the job here, I knew there were 33 kids signed up for band and, for a university this size, that’s not right,” Coleman said.
He has made it right and then some. As of June 2022, 11 months after he arrived, the Marching Mocs have 140 students signed up, a 425% increase and the highest number in more than a decade.
“I said, ‘You know, if we could be 85 or 90 this year, I think that’d be great. That’d be positive,” Coleman said. “The growth that’s happened this year has just really been a shock to me.”
Stuart Benkert, head of the UTC Department of Music, said there was no doubt Coleman would succeed, but maybe not this quickly.
“Professor Coleman has surpassed our expectations for this first year. His national reputation and strong relationship with band directors across the region and country combined with his clear vision for the Marching Mocs has certainly elevated the status of the program,” Benkert said.
One of Coleman’s first goals was visiting some regional high schools within a two-hour radius of Chattanooga, including Huntsville and Birmingham in Alabama, Nashville and Knoxville in Tennessee, and the northern suburbs of Atlanta.
“Where you grow a band program is you have good relationships with middle school and high school directors who encourage their kids, not only to keep playing but, ‘You should take band at UTC,'” said Coleman, who spent 25 years as a band director at high schools around Atlanta.
Tracy Wright, band director at Ringgold High School in Georgia, said Coleman’s background makes it easier for him to connect with students, but there’s more to it than that.
“First of all, he really knows his craft, and I think that’s a big draw, but he’s not arrogant about it. As my mother used to say, ‘He’s not full of himself,'” said Wright, who has known Coleman for 30 years.
“He’s a warm and welcoming person, and I think that attracts kids, but it attracts their parents because you have to sell the parents on it as well, you know?”
Sara-Kate Suits, a recent graduate and member of the marching band at LaFayette High School in Georgia, will be a freshman at UTC in the fall 2022 semester. An oboist since seventh grade, she said she joined the Marching Mocs after having a conversation with Coleman.
“He didn’t talk down to me like I was another kid in high school. He talked to me like I was someone he knew already. It felt special and he just made me feel like home,” said Suits.
Her decision to enroll in UTC was cemented when Coleman helped her land a scholarship that supplies $3,000 each semester. Without the money, it would have been “impossible” for her to attend UTC, she said.
As one might expect, COVID also played a role—and still plays a role—in the growth of Marching Mocs. With the pandemic clamping down after March 2020, any Marching Moc member who started at UTC in the fall of 2019 may have been sitting somewhat idle for almost two years, Coleman noted.
“The day-to-day stress of the pandemic is over, but we’re going to feel the effects of COVID for a long time because we basically have two years with a lot of students who don’t know what it’s like to be a band,” he said.
“So we’re dealing with a lot of young band members and that’ll take a long time to catch up because, try as you may, there are going to be habits that need to be broken. That’s a lot harder to do than just starting off the right way.”
With the Sept. 3 start of football season looming, pressure is on to crank up in-person practices to make sure the Marching Mocs run smoothly, in sync and with style.
Online band practice just doesn’t work.
“We tried,” Coleman said with a laugh.