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‘It’s a family away from home’: USF’s number one fan, the Herd of Thunder

Only 10% of the 350 Herd of Thunder marching band members are music majors. ORACLE PHOTO/ARIANNA RENICK

In December, USF football made its first bowl game appearance in five years. Traveling to Boca Raton with the Bulls was USF’s marching band, Herd of Thunder – or better known as ‘HOT.’

Just like some seniors on the football team, senior biology major Luis Hernandez didn’t expect to experience a bowl game during his tenure at USF. 

“The energy during the game was absolutely crazy,” Hernandez said. “I counted out the bowl game experience for me but it was really the cherry on top of a good season.” 

A school’s marching band is key to the ambiance of sporting events. Trevor Butts, a USF 2014 alum and the director of bands, knows first-hand the impact a marching band has during the games.

“When we get riled up, the crowd gets riled up. The band brings an energy to the games that can’t be matched without us being there,” Butts said. “We heckle the other teams and they notice it [too].”

Related: USF routes Syracuse in Boca Raton Bowl

Butts, who graduated with his master’s degree in instrumental conducting in 2020, did marching band in high school before joining the Herd of Thunder from 2010-14. 

Marching bands and sports teams are similar when it comes to how they prepare for games. 

The band practices three times a week for two and a half hours. They have different uniforms, stretch before their practices and travel to Raymond James Stadium – just like the football team does. 

Unlike other sports, though, much of their hard work is overlooked by the fans, Butts said. 

“We rehearse six hours a week to put on an exciting show for football games on Saturday, but I feel like sometimes fans come in thinking, ‘This just happens,’” Butts said.

During football’s six home games last season, the HOT band put on five different performances. University bands usually do up to three, Butts said.

Like athletes and band players, Butts said many life skills are learned from being in the band.

Some of these strengths include time management, better communication and discipline. 

“Marching band and athletics work towards teamwork,” Butts said. “If you’re not communicating on the field, you’re not going to have a successful season. You have to learn your music and drills [like] athletics knows their plays.”

But the biggest similarity between the two is the familial bond between its members. 

For senior public relations and advertising major Rafael Benitez, it’s helped him overcome the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic during his freshman year. 

Joining USF in fall 2020, Benitez’s only experience in high school was playing in the band. He didn’t join the marching band until his senior year in high school when the pandemic began.

Now, due to his time in HOT, he took on a leadership position as new member advisor. This position requires him to reach out to high school seniors who made the HOT audition. 

He has also joined Kappa Kappa Psi, a band fraternity in partnership with HOT. Benitez said his bond with HOT is like a formed family.

“I was shy when I came to the university and didn’t go out of my way to meet people,” Benitez said. “But HOT forced me to meet people [and] strengthened my love for both. It helped me find all these social avenues in my life, that frankly, freshman me would have never met.” 

Hernandez had a similar experience. After four years of doing marching band in high school, Hernandez was set on not pursuing it in college until a friend convinced him to join HOT his freshman year. 

Hernandez is now the band captain who helps with logistics and planning social events. He said the position is his way of giving back to HOT after four years. 

“Our band is a family away from home. It’s difficult to believe because there’s 350 of us,” Hernandez said. 

“I would show up to practice and we’d just be hanging out. All of my other worries would disappear for the two and a half hours I was there. There was always at least one person ready to help me out whenever,” Hernandez said. 

This camaraderie is seen most during the basketball season with the ‘Rumble’ band. Rumble is USF’s smaller pep band that attends the basketball games that both Hernandez and Benitez are a part of. 

Rumble takes up a section in the Yuengling Center which makes it much more intimate than the major half-time performance done at Raymond James Stadium. Here, the band is in the stands just like the students, heckling the opponents on the court.

“It’s a different experience,” Benitez said. “You’re not performing on the field and preparing week by week to get a show out. It’s a lot less work for a more intimate audience.”

During these games, Rumble helps the Sun Dolls and USF cheerleaders with their chants. 

This year, the HOT band has been noticed by USF men’s basketball coach Amir Abdur-Rahim and USF’s football coach Alex Golesh. 

Related: Bulls showing signs of improvement under Amir Abdur-Rahim

Both coaches have shouted out the HOT band in their post-game interviews and thanked them for the energy they brought to the game. Butts said it’s rare for university coaches to recognize the band like this.

“It’s a great feeling,” Butts said. “The fact that my band is bringing this level of excitement to games to the point where head coaches are talking about it is astronomical.” 

In the past decade with USF, Butts said he’s proud of the HOT band’s improvement.  

“This band has grown within the last 14 years,” Butts said. “It’s been great and successful. We are on the upswing of that.”