Spartans: return of a champion

by Michael Carlson, DCW staff

Despite the odds and the plague of rumors throughout the activity, the 2010 season saw the Spartans from Nashua, NH, rise up like a Phoenix from the ashes of an ancient tale. Founded in 1955, the corps has always been a symbol of power and tenacity. Since 1997, the Spartans have been a five-time gold medal winner and have enjoyed the majority of seasons since then with a top-10 position at DCI Finals.

At the end of the 2008 season, the corps faced an unfortunate situation requiring them to drop from competition in 2009 and rebuild. Fortunately, in 2010, they returned to the field.
Although the corps missed the season’s first major match-up of Open Class corps at DeKalb, IL, they caught up with the tour in Michigan and shocked the activity with a score of 81.45. The best was to come.

By the time the Spartans took their place in the season’s finale formation they had achieved a remarkable 12.15-point gain in less than a week and a half. Their finals performance brought them within 0.5 of taking second, not to mention they came out on top of the color guard and visual ensemble captions.

What is often missed behind the excitement of the field production and the celebration is the herculean efforts to bring an organization back from the brink of being just a memory. The following is an inspiring interview with Director Rich Rigolini about the challenges and efforts that went into the return.

Michael Carlson: What were the Spartans 2010 season expectations/goals?

Rich Rigolini: We were really starting a drum corps from scratch. After taking a full year off in 2009, much of the infrastructure that a successful DCI corps needs was completely gone — volunteers, a building to call home, money, students and staff. We reached deep within our community to build relationships with educators, non-profit leaders [and] community leaders to start the rebuilding of an entire organization. Our competitive success was only a result of the success of those off-the-field goals.

MC: Did you meet or exceed these goals?

RR: We met and exceeded many of our goals. We have built relationships with many other organizations in New Hampshire that are going to have lasting effects for the Spartans for generations to come. We did that while at the same time becoming one of the only 501 (c)(3) organizations in New Hampshire to ever come out of bankruptcy and succeed as a viable entity . . . in any industry!

MC: Were there any surprises as to how the season turned out?

RR: We were delighted with the outreach from our sponsors, old and new. None of us assumed the corps would be in the hunt for a medal. We just wanted to bring the old team back together again and re-establish our identity. We did that and more. How our members worked to make the season happen was a gift, which in turn was a “beautiful surprise” for all of us.

MC: Did the return result in a total reorganization?

RR: The organization underwent a massive change in leadership, direction and philosophy. While we live for the three values we hold dear, responsibility, respect and commitment, we added a new value, FUN! If none of us could have a good time doing this, it was not worth the work we knew — and still know — we have to do. So far we have had to re-define “fun” a few times, but each time we have done that we took a deep breath and knew what we were creating was something very special to all of us.

MC: What were the staff changes?

RR: The administration of the corps went under the biggest change. The board of directors was established with local leaders, some of whom are familiar with drum corps, but a few who are not so familiar. This has brought the biggest change to the organization, a professional business approach.

The teaching staff was, is and will always be made up of people who have withstood the test of time the corps has gone through. Many are here from when we first made it to the top in 1997 and who were with the team in 2007. For many it took only one call and all of a sudden the Spartans’ staff was back. There is no greater thrill than knowing you can come back home. Many of us did just that.

MC: What is different and what has remained the same about the new organization?

RR: I think the story is not what is new, but what has remained the same. Many of the same teachers and administrators that were here from 1997-2007 are back. Our philosophy of teaching and design remain. We are as committed as ever to excellence, both through teaching as well as entertainment.

To answer your question directly, however, I would say I think the most obvious difference is that we have opened the corps up with a greater level of transparency and candor.

MC: Were there ever any concerns the corps would not be able to make it back?

RR: Of course, the challenges for a modern drum corps are extraordinary. Nothing is easy anymore. Diesel, buses, equipment, insurance, food, practice locations, tour and balancing work, school and drum corps. All these presented challenges to us as we started to rebuild.

They will continue to present challenges. Money is the backbone to every entity trying to do good for so many in such a unique way. Drum corps is not what it used to be. This is a challenge that we have to re-evaluate each season. At a staff meeting a few weeks back, we all realized that what we had in 1997 or even 2004 is very different than what we have now in 2011. The future is complicated, let there be no doubt. But I think our small subculture of drum corps is reflective of a world that is undergoing significant change as well.

MC: What was the greatest challenge the comeback faced?

RR: The challenge was working past the financial issues. Although it is the past and we prefer to leave it there, none of us will deny the recent time was not a good period for the corps. We will continue to work as best we can to move away from that and look forward to better times.

MC: How did you work around the issue?

RR: The only way to work around the situation was to have committed people who wanted it to continue. There can never be enough great things said about the original members of the board in 2009. They brought not only their passion for the corps to the table, but they were ready to put their collective strong backgrounds in finance, Spartans and business on the table to make it work. No one worked harder for the corps to be where it is today then Paul LaFlamme, Sr. and his son, P.G. They took risks and opened their minds to new ways of thinking, then went after people who they knew could make this work.

MC: How was recruiting for the return?

RR: Recruiting takes a lot of work. We had a great turnout after taking a year off and going through some bad publicity. The 2010 corps had 64 members and as we looked back to when the corps first won a medal in 1997, we knew it was a new beginning. The numbers were so similar. We all went into the season with blind faith and came out believers.

MC: Was there a good turnout of veterans for the return?

RR: We did have a good return from 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. They wanted their corps back. They are the reason the corps succeeded. Had they not returned to bring “their” corps back, it may not have happened. We had 10 age-outs out of 64. Many could have marched in any World Class corps. Instead they looked deep and decided to return home. It was as important to them as it was to us.

MC: As we approach the 2011 season, how do you see yourselves growing from the success of last year?

RR: 2011 has become a whole new chapter for the corps, as each year does. Our goal is to be great at what we do. The show is exciting and ideas from the design staff have taken a notch up from last season.

MC: What do you see in the future over two, five and maybe 10 years down the road?

RR: Much has to do with our five-year plan. As you re-emerge or become a new corps, DCI really emphasizes having a good business plan. Our re-emergence is still young. There is the never-ending battle of recruiting, retention of members, sponsors and developing stronger ties with the community.

As a wise person once told me, you have to lose to appreciate winning and you have to win to recognize the lesson of defeat. We know some days will be better than others, but the trust of the Spartan family is something we will always cherish and honor. Let our past teach us to have a better future.