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Gonzaga has plenty of pep, Fairleigh Dickinson mascot loses head in dance-off

March 21, 2019 Updated Thu., March 21, 2019 at 11:04 p.m.

The Gonzaga band plays a warmup song before the game with Loyola Marymount on  Jan. 17 at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The Gonzaga band plays a warmup song before the game with Loyola Marymount on Jan. 17 at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Gene Warnick The Spokesman-Review

As the truTV cameras panned to the end of the court as the second half of the Gonzaga game was about to begin Thursday night, the Fairleigh Dickinson mascot, a blue-headed horse named Nitro, was shown sitting with his back against a March Madness sign.

“Nitro has a long face,” play-by-play announcer Andrew Catalon dead-panned, referring to top-seeded Gonzaga’s 36-point halftime lead in the Zags’ NCAA Tournament opener.

It didn’t get any better for the Knights. Gonzaga cruised to a 87-49 victory and Nitro lost his head.

(Yes, you read that correctly.)

During a dance-off with the Bulldogs’ mascot, Spike, which took place on a timeout with 7:27 remaining, Nitro went down to do the splits. When Nitro hit the court, the head to his costume popped off. The mascot quickly regained his wits, but not before the crowd at Vivint Smart Home Arena erupted in laughter.

“Duct tape, man. Gotta have duct tape,” The Spokesman-Review’s John Blanchette tweeted.

Of course, Blanchette also tweeted a picture of Nitro from before the game and asked, “Boise State yard sale?” for the mascot’s similarity to the Bronco from the Idaho school.

At least Nitro made it to Salt Lake City.

Fairleigh Dickinson, a private university in New Jersey with four campuses and an enrollment of 11,500, had to rent the University of Utah’s band for the game.

“I don’t know anything about the university. If a school is not able (to send a band), then the NCAA encourages you to hire a band from local high schools or universities,” David Fague, the director of Gonzaga’s band, said in a phone interview while riding one of the buses back to the team’s hotel Thursday night. “I would say every year maybe one or two (schools) out of 68 would have to do that. We’ve been across the court from rented bands maybe one or two times, I know that.”

Tuesday, during its First Four game against Prairie View A&M, Fairleigh Dickinson ended up using the host University of Dayton’s band.

“It’s part of the whole college atmosphere, especially for the NCAA Tournament. We really need the band,” FDU cheerleading coach Crystal Simmons told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City. “It helps with the atmosphere. It helps with the spirit. It helps get everyone going.”

Jody Genessy of the Deseret News called it a “Band-Aide.”

At least the Utah band members who played for the Knights on Thursday in Salt Lake City got FDU T-shirts out of the deal.

Fairleigh Dickinson’s plight is something Fague and the Zags rarely have to worry about.

The Bulldog Band was formed in 1994 by “three guys named Shawn,” Fague said.

The students were actually Shawn McGinn, Sean McKenzie and Shawn Griggs. Fague joined the band as a freshman at GU in 1996, playing saxophone.

After getting his master’s degree at North Texas, Fague returned to Spokane as the first full-time director of the band in 2004.

Of course, there are challenges. While the men’s basketball team is in Utah, the women’s team opens NCAA Tournament play this weekend in Corvallis, Oregon.

“Since we have two teams playing right now in two places … it’s difficult to put together two bands,” Fague said. “We always have enough for the men, but not always for the women.”

Especially, Fague said, when professors balk at letting students out of class.

Fague said about 120 musicians signed up for the volunteer band at the start of the school year, with 70 to 100 playing for games at The Kennel.

But the NCAA allows schools only 30 band members for tournament games, including the director.

“That’s the toughest part of my job,” Fague said – deciding who gets to travel for NCAA games.

Fague said he bases the decision on two factors: attendance and instrumentation. If band members don’t regularly attend games during the regular season, they likely won’t get a berth to the playoffs. And with 29 members, Fague said he’s looking for six to eight trumpeters, four trombonists, three percussionists, an electric bassist and some flutists, clarinetists and saxophonists.

“I tell students when they start, if you play in the Bulldog Band it will be the most fun you’ll have playing an instrument,” Fague said.

Erik Bruce can attest to that. Bruce played trumpet in the band as a student in the early 2000s when it was still a student-run organization, and now lives in Mukilteo, Washington, and works in finance for an aviation company

“Now it’s grown into something even bigger,” Bruce said.

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