Eight hundred current and former Pride of the Southland Band members, united and marching on the field at once.

That's what students have to look forward to during this year's homecoming game halftime show.

Each year during homecoming, the Pride of the Southland Band has the distinction of marching with its former members and alumni, as the Alumni Band joins in. While the event has always had a respectable turnout with about 100 men and women in attendance, this year is different.

Saturday, nearly 470 former members will be in attendance. Combined with the 330 current members, there will be nearly 800 marchers on the field for the halftime show, more than ever before.

Although former Director of Bands Gary Sousa remains on paid administrative leave – pending a full review after a public disagreement in October – interim Band Director Don Ryder carries on this band tradition, with a spin.

As a result of unprecedented participation, Ryder said the Alumni Council has had trouble finding enough instruments for all the attendees to play.

Ryder was originally excited by the prospect of a large turnout by the former Pride members, dubbed 500 Strong, in early September.

"A lot of it is the camaraderie and the friendship," Ryder said. "We have people coming back who graduated in 1961 and that are marching.

"... We have people that are flying in from California just to march."

Patrick O'Shea, who performed in the Pride from 1968-70, is coming from Virginia for the weekend. In light of recent events, O'Shea said he sees homecoming as an opportunity to spark greater interaction with current members.

"I want to try and support the band now more than I did before," O'Shea said. "At this point in my life, I'm able to do more and I've been talking to some alumni and we're looking at trying to set up a couple of scholarships.

"I think the marching band needs our support."

Despite speculation, Ryder suggested other factors were responsible for the unusually large Over the Hill turnout, beyond the removal of Sousa, a 14-year band veteran.

"I don't think it's one of protest, I think it's one of positive," Ryder said. "That the alumni are coming for various reasons, but it's support of believing in the organization.

"I don't think its ever been about one person, and I tell the band that all the time too. ... The bottom line is there have been people planning to come back for a long time, this whole idea of getting to 500 [Strong] started way back before any of that stuff developed."

O'Shea conveyed hope that the effect created by 500 Strong will last long after homecoming.

"I myself am coming down to cheer the Pride, to cheer Tennessee, my school and to hopefully create some positive atmosphere that will carry not just through a couple of days, but to continue," O'Shea said.

"You'll find Tennessee alumni everywhere, but there's an awful lot of band alumni and I would like to see ... not just a once a year shot, but let's make it all year."

Cindy Lockett, a 2006 graduate of UT and band member, emphasized the importance of remembering the "family" dynamic between past and present band members, a relationship that spans generations and geography.

"When the unfortunate circumstance happened, we knew that the current Pride members needed more support than they ever had, to show them that their family was here for them," Lockett said. "It kind of started with a group of about six of us ... where we really started the effort of 500 Strong."

"We put out promotional videos, really getting people excited," Lockett said.

Lockett said she is proud of the Pride of the Southland Band Alumni Council, the group who organized 500 Strong, and sees this weekend more as a natural progression of a very passionate group.

"(The Alumni Council) has always been very involved, organizing homecoming, organizing other large scale events that we've put on, getting communication out to donors, communication out to alumni," Lockett said.

"But it has never gone to anything like this"

Jim Houston, a Pride member from 1976-1977 has always made it a priority to return for football games, despite living six hours away.

"I started playing in the Alumni Band in 1983 and have only missed two years since then," Houston said.

"This will be my 29th homecoming to march. I look forward to it each year. ... I want to be there to show my support for the Pride in hopes that their role won't be minimized in the future."

For men like Houston, performing with his Pride "family" defined his college experience.

"It always takes me back," Houston said. "When I march onto the field I am once again a 20-year-old college student. All my friends and family are up in the stands and we are going to party all night."

Regardless of the inspiration behind the return of alumni, Ryder said everyone will be marching to the same tune on Saturday.

"When you're a member of the Pride ... you're in the Pride for life," Ryder said. "It's something that gets inside of your heart and soul."