Yale’s band couldn’t travel for March Madness, so Idaho’s band answered the call

To state the obvious: The NCAA Tournament is a massive operation. 67 games in 14 cities, hundreds of student athletes, and hundreds of thousands of fans all zig-zagging across the nation for a month to crown one winner. But behind the scenes and often off screen are thousands of more supporting cast members that make March Madness the best postseason in American sports. From the arena crew that prepare the building and keep it humming on game day, to the team trainers that keep the athletes in peak health to compete.

As the buzzer sounded in Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on Friday and Yale’s August Mahoney leapt onto the scorers table to celebrate the 13-seed Bulldogs upsetting 4-seed Auburn, the Yale band tore through a rendition of their fight song “Bulldog.” It wasn’t until after the game that many found out the truth: the musicians who just rallied the Ivy League champions to arguably their biggest win in school history were actually from the University of Idaho.

The call came to Idaho’s band director Spencer Martin on Selection Sunday. Yale had double booked their band – the Bulldogs only qualified for the tournament thanks to a bit of March magic in the Ivy League championship game. As Idaho was the host school for the Spokane games, they were asked to step in. “It was the perfect storm because we had just gotten back from the Big Sky tournament in Boise where we supported our teams,” Martin told SB Nation “I said, ‘I think we can do it.’ And so I just reached out to [the band]. There were 29 of them that were available.”

Idaho hasn’t reached the men’s NCAA Tournament in 34 years, and the women’s team has only qualified three times in the last 40. For most in the Vandal band, this was their only opportunity to see March Madness up close. “I saw the email with the Google Doc being like, ‘Hey, sign up for this,’” said tenor saxophone player Mysti Smith, “and I was like ‘Yes! I want to go travel again.’ I love traveling with the band.”

The Vandals (or Vandogs as they started calling themselves) learned the Yale fight song an hour before they boarded the bus up to Spokane on game day. The rest of their repertoire—pumping their instruments like weights while yelling “Get swole!” and singing the entirety of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme during opponent free throws—that was all Idaho. “We’ve been sneakily weaving in many Vandal things and we just change it to Bulldogs or we do some bow-wowing and things like that,” said Martin.

Then came the upset: behind a massive 28-point game from junior John Poulakidas, Yale took down a potential title contender in Auburn. A frantic final possession saw the Tigers get four opportunities to tie or win, but Yale prevailed to earn just their second NCAA Tournament win in school history and their biggest upset. “My first reaction was I better count off this fight song real fast,” said Martin “It was just amazing. It was just surreal.” After the game, Yale head coach James Jones acknowledged the effect the band had on the game: “Having that atmosphere and people coming out to support us, there’s nothing better than that, and we can’t appreciate them more than to be Bulldog fans.”

Asked if the U of I band had plans to accompany Yale to the Sweet Sixteen if they were to defeat San Diego State, Spencer said their residency was ending in Spokane: “Our goal is to win, to not only send the team to the Sweet Sixteen, but so that we can send the Yale Band to the Sweet Sixteen so that they can experience this as well.”

In the end, Yale couldn’t keep the magic going and fell to last year’s national title runner-up Aztecs 85-57. But for Mysti Smith and the rest of the Vandal band, getting to be honorary Ivy Leaguers for a weekend was the experience of a lifetime: “It’s been really exciting and also a little terrifying, because we’re in the public eye. This has never happened to me before. It’s just really fun.”

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