When David Mills arrived as UConn’s assistant director of bands in 1990, the basketball program was only just emerging on the national stage, and another 12 years would elapse before a full-fledged Division I-A football team materialized. At the time, the UConn Marching Band comprised a mere 120 members.
“The University was not, in 1990, what it is now,” says Mills, a music professor in the School of Fine Arts and director of the UConn marching, pep, and symphony bands. “Back in the day at Memorial Stadium, there was really very little of what anyone would call a traditional collegiate football atmosphere. People liked the band, but didn’t think anything of it.”
In the 21 years since then, however, Mills has more than doubled the size of the marching band. Today, its 300-plus members make up the largest student organization on campus, dedicating many hours a week to rehearsing music and intricate drills on the field in hopes of firing up devoted fans of Huskies football and basketball throughout the year. They also travel nationwide to perform at bowl games and NFL games and have appeared at other major events such as the 1992 Presidential Inaugural Parade and 1996 World Series.
“Now, there’s a real atmosphere at football games,” Mills says. “There’s energy flowing through the band—not just from the band—and that makes a tremendous difference. Then you tack onto that the excitement of TV, the Big East, and playing real football schools. … The magic of it is that [the students] come in, and their energy, their dedication, their desire to do something better is just so energizing. They feed that energy back.”
Crediting the triumphs of basketball coaches Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma, the revitalization of the campus through the UCONN 2000 program and the rise of UConn’s football team, Mills says such strides collectively boosted the University’s profile to provide the momentum necessary to build the caliber of marching band program he always envisioned.
“All things had to work together,” he says. “It was like riding a wave that’s perfect. We were ready to catch that wave.”
Recalling the marching band’s trip this past September to play at halftime before 113,000 impassioned football fans at the revamped University of Michigan stadium, Mills acknowledges his pride in the band’s powerful presence.
“We get off the bus in Michigan, looking like a million dollars. We were ready. You could see it in their faces. We looked the part,” he says. “We were rehearsing that morning, and [Michigan fans] knew somebody was there—not just some little school from the East but somebody significant.”
Mills’ enthusiasm for teaching music and band directing has not gone unnoticed. This past year, the Alumni Association presented him with a Faculty Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award and the School of Fine Arts granted him an Outstanding Faculty Award, while his former and current students founded the Dr. David L. Mills Marching & Pep Band Fund to honor his 20th anniversary at UConn.
But to him, it is the students who make the band what it is today. “We find students so dedicated and so ambitious to do well and work hard. You wouldn’t believe how hard they work, and they want more,” Mills says. “And that’s what’s most rewarding—their satisfaction.
“It’s been a great adventure,” he adds. “At every point that I have thought, ‘This is as far as we’re going to go,’ it’s been the foundation for the next step.”