TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Had it been his call to make, Florida A&M interim president Larry Robinson likely wouldn't have chosen Orlando as the setting for the school's Marching 100 band to return to the field after a 19-month suspension . Not after everything the university has endured since Nov. 19, 2011.
The Citrus Bowl is a hulking, drab, concrete reminder of the controversy that has enveloped FAMU and razed the school's reputation since drum major Robert Champion was beaten to death during a hazing incident after the 2011 Florida Classic, an annual rivalry game between the Rattlers and Bethune-Cookman College.
And it stands to reason that there isn't a worse place for the program to try to begin writing a new chapter of its history as it moves on from the aftermath of Champion's death -- a process that has included massive hazing reform and new leadership at the administrative level while a wrongful death suit against the university and criminal charges against at least 15 former band members play out in court.
But fate can tend to be star-crossed, and so it shall be that the Marching 100's first performance since Champion's death, Sunday during halftime of the football team's season opener against Mississippi Valley State, will take place at the last place Champion ever donned the FAMU uniform and carried his whistle and baton.
"Life is full of ironies," Robinson told me during a conversation in his office on the fourth floor of FAMU's Lee Hall recently. "Orlando, if you had to pick, it probably wouldn't have been the place you wanted to start it, but that is the first game, (FAMU band director) Dr. (Sylvester) Young feels that they're ready, and so be it. That's where it's going to be."
Robinson was thrust from his position as FAMU provost into the role of interim president last summer after the resignation of James Ammons, who had been at the school for five years.
It was Robinson's second time sitting as a placeholder for a president-to-be -- he also served for about six weeks in 2007, before Ammons was hired -- but this round in the big chair came with a new and unique set of challenges brought on by the aftermath of Champion's death.
FAMU interim president Larry Robinson pledged big reforms in the wake of the tragedy. (Courtesy: Florida A&M University)
In the year since he took over, Robinson has helped to implement a wide array of anti-hazing measures , including a revised anti-hazing policy, the creation of two new positions -- a president for anti-hazing and a music compliance officer -- and tougher criteria for students to meet to be allowed to participate in the band.
The last piece of the puzzle, however -- and the one perhaps most vital to getting the band back on the field -- was to hire a new band director to replace Julian White, who unexpectedly retired last May after originally fighting to keep his job in the wake of Champion's death.
After an exhaustive search, Robinson settled on Young, a 1969 FAMU graduate who spent time as the band director at Lincoln University, Hampton University and Ohio University before retiring in 1996. And it wasn't an especially easy sell to lure Young out of retirement -- in part because he applied for the job without telling his wife and with no expectation that he would get the position.
"I figured I was probably too old for it and it didn't matter, but what I wanted my application to do was not necessarily get the job for me, but at least increase the standards of the pool of applicants," Young said. "But the process sort of backfired on me when they started to focus on me instead of the rest of the pool. And then, of course, after my wife came on board, I decided to go for it, and it was a great decision."
Young officially took over on June 14, and on June 27, Robinson lifted the performance ban that had hovered over the band since Champion's death. Once the band had been reinstated, the goal was to have it back on the field for the Sept. 1 opener.
At that point, Robinson felt there were no lingering questions about the band's emotional maturity, and the only remaining doubts about whether that goal was attainable had to do with whether Young could have them musically and physically prepared to take the field.
Once at a robust 400 members at the time of Champion's death, the Marching 100 had been trimmed to a more manageable 140 -- with 66 on scholarship -- when day-long pre-drill practices started this month.
Young estimates that 70 percent of the band is made up of new members, and with just two weeks to prepare for the first show, there were serious questions and concerns about whether the band could perform at the level that is expected.
"If we felt that this band would not represent the university in the way it has done for so many years, we would have said 'No we can't do that,' which would have given us more time to bring the level of the band up," Young said. "But we felt that the students could reach the level that we want them to be, and they're moving in that direction."
Sylvester Young (left) and Robinson announced the decision to return to the field in mid-August. (Courtesy: Florida A&M University)
In explaining how he and his staff have elevated the band to what they feel is an acceptable level, Young recounted a time legendary jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley visited FAMU for a workshop. According to Young, Adderley played a piece of music that wowed the students to the point where they were asking how it was even possible that someone could play so well.
Young said Adderley picked one student out of the crowd and made him stand up. He then told the student to take his right hand and touch his nose when he told him to touch his nose. Adderley instructed the student to touch his nose, and, as you might expect, he obliged.
"'Did you have to think to do that?'" Young recalls Adderley asking. "The kid said no, and what we want to do has the same principle of taking the thinking out of the process. We want them to react to the task at hand.
"We don't want them to think to take a 22 1/2 step to keep the line straight, we just want them to do it. There's a lot of pressure on the students to get to that, but in time, it will happen. When that happens, then our task becomes much easier, and the possibilities for the band's performance become extremely high."
It's also been a huge benefit to Young to be able to lean on that remaining 30 percent of the band -- the upperclassmen who stuck around while the program was on indefinite probation, when no one would have blamed them for leaving and pursuing music elsewhere.
But in talking with senior members of the band, the general sense was that few, if any, ever gave moving on a legitimate thought.
"I've been playing my clarinet since fifth grade," said Brittany Squires, a 22-year-old senior who grew up in Atlanta dreaming of playing at FAMU. "We've invested a lot of time, effort, money into honing our craft, and just having the opportunity to be here is an honor. ... Of course, the people that weren't involved (with Champion's death) were unhappy about (the suspension), but as a family, we just kind of had to do what was right and move forward."
That sense of family is constantly at the forefront of Young's message to the band, as well. He preaches it at every practice and says that it's key to truly eradicating hazing from the band's culture.
"When I meet with the students, I know (the message) is working," Young said. "When I can get the entire band, upperclassmen and everybody, to participate in moving the freshmen from one dorm to their other dorms -- because all of them stayed in the same dorms (during pre-drill) -- that was unheard of before.
"Just having the opportunity to be here is an honor," says one member of the FAMU band. (Courtesy: Florida A&M University)
"When we go into the cafeteria, and (upperclassmen) don't skip the new students (in line), or they invite them to sit at a table and talk about your high school or what you plan to major in, those are the type of things that I can see changing. It says, 'I'm not better than you.'
"We need each other to make this work, and I think that's happening among the ranks of the kids. ... It is a challenge when you have a situation where that type of interaction has existed, but our hope is that it becomes the norm, and I think we're moving in that direction. You are no better than the next person."
Randall Reid, a 22-year-old senior tuba player from Miami, said he never considered leaving FAMU, and he has embraced the opportunity since the ban was lifted to foster a more familial atmosphere within the music program that had previously been missing.
"Coming to a university, a lot of people don't get the opportunity to join into an organization or anything like that to really build that kind of camaraderie," he said. "The band is kind of an outlet for us, but this is not all we do. I've always been told that you can't march next to someone you don't know, so it's like we've always taken the extra effort to get to know our fellow band members."
Two years ago, such a paradigm shift in the culture at Florida A&M would have been unfathomable, and it's been a challenging process to this point. But it'll all be worth it when they take the field on Sunday.
"It's probably going to be real exhilarating," Reid said. "We haven't all been on the field in almost two years now, so I'm pretty sure that once we get on the field and people are there, it's going to put a big smile on our faces. I'm ready to move forward and put on a good show."
Added Squires: "There's nothing like that feeling or performing in front of thousands of people. Most people never get to experience something like that. So it's exciting, it's a humbling experience, we're ready to get back out there. We want our families and friends to see us and we want to make everybody proud."
Not everyone is so thrilled to see the Marching 100 back on the band so soon, however -- particularly Pam Champion and Robert Champion, Sr., who lost their son on that tragic night in November 2011.
The Champion family has been consistently outspoken about getting justice for their son and holding accountable those responsible for his death. When Robinson reinstated the band in June, the Champions were vocal about their disagreement with the decision, and their stance hasn't changed as the first performance draws near.
"I do think that it's too soon, and it's really disappointing, and it's hurtful," Pam Champion said. "The thing that I look at most of all is the safety of those students. ... Looking at what's been implemented, I don't see anything new, and I don't see any proof that what is in place is effective."
The Champions say that 19 months simply wasn't long enough for the university to have evidence that their reform efforts are working, and that the band shouldn't have been allowed to mobilize and perform again until that had been accomplished.
"This situation has been going on for a while at the school, and I suspect it's going to take more than a year or so to fix it," Robert Champion Sr. said. "You can't just fix it overnight."
The FAMU band played on the field before Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. (Getty Images)
In June, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at FAMU was dealt a three-year suspension following a reported hazing incident in which a 21-year-old pledge lost consciousness. So why, the Champions ask, was the band back on the field so soon after their hazing practice killed their son?
They feel the issue of hazing reform can't truly be addressed in earnest until anyone who may have been involved in the old hazing culture has been cycled out -- if not longer.
"We're talking decades (to fix this problem)," Pam Champion said, "and after a year, they think they're ready? I don't think so. ... They need to prove that everything that's been put in place is working, and that hasn't been done. There's a big rush to get on the field, and I can't help but be concerned about the students."
Surprisingly enough, the Champion family will be in attendance at Sunday's game, but their presence at the Citrus Bowl won't be a sign of solidarity with the Marching 100. Rather, the grieving parents will be in Orlando to make a statement in protest of the band's performance out of what they call a responsibility to the students.
"Everyone that steps in that band was a freshman once, but because of the culture, they've lost that innocence, and now what has been going on for decades has become the norm," Pam Champion said.
They'll also be there to promote their charity, the Robert D. Champion Drum Major for Change Foundation, and a September event the group is hosting called Open the Door to the Hidden Secrets of Hazing and Bullying.
"Our goal, first and foremost, is to put the message out that this is not something that can't be put away or can't be eradicated," Pam Champion said.
"It's very doable, but we have to understand that there is a mindset involved here that's so inbred that they can't see that it's wrong. It's almost bragging rights for some, but it's wrong -- it's wrong to abuse, bully and humiliate another human being, and that's what the foundation is all about."
It won't bring their son back, but the Champions say it's the best they can do.
"This was a sign of students crying out for help," Robert Champion Sr. said of the hazing that led to Robert Jr.'s death. "Things happen for a reason, and this was a secret that had been going on for decades. The way they were crying out, someone had to lose their life, and my son did."
So what does the Marching 100's return to the field mean, really? Is it a celebration of what has been accomplished already? Or a sign of a new beginning with hope for progress to come? Or is it an insult to those who have been impacted by hazing in the past?
That all depends on whom you ask, but if one thing has been made clear in the months since Robert Champion's death, it's that the transition to this new era of the FAMU Marching 100 has not been an easy one, and no one at the school is making claims that hazing has been or will soon be totally eliminated.
"I think that it would be naive to say that on, say, January the 15th, 2018 it'll be gone for good," the interim president Robinson said. "That would be foolish. However, we have seen a heightened awareness and what appears to be a lowering of tolerance for anything that looks like hazing from our student body."
One thing that is certain is that Florida A&M, once renowned for the band's on-field merits, is now being defined by its off-the-field controversy. And regardless of the progress that's made in the effort to eradicate hazing, the spectre of Robert Champion may turn out to be one the Marching 100's reputation can never shake.
"It's a part of our history now; we can't erase that," Young says. (Courtesy: Florida A&M University)
"I don't think we can (eliminate that from our reputation), but as they say, time heals wounds, and I think the further away we move from that situation, the less significant it will become in the forward movement of the band and the university," Young said. "It's a part of our history now; we can't erase that. However, we can show that time stopped at that moment, we evaluated the situation, we put in new policies, made new rules, we started all over and we're moving forward."
And in a situation like this, a light at the end of the tunnel might be about the best one could ask.
"One of the things that helped me a lot personally as I thought about the challenges that we were confronting in 2011 and '12 was when I thought about the 125-year history of FAMU and all of the challenges that it had to have faced -- from emerging post-Civil War, going through the great depression, going through the civil rights struggle and everything else in between," Robinson said.
"I said, 'Well, this may be a tough moment for FAMU, but I don't think it's necessarily the toughest. And if people were able to survive those and not only get through them, but leave behind a rich institution with great traditions, then we ought to be able to get through this as a collective, as a family.'"
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at email@example.com .