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THEN AND NOW

When Tirebiter was the big mutt on campus

USC's feisty mascot, who died in retirement while chasing one last car, was a hard act to follow.

September 27, 2009|Steve Harvey

In the 1940s, one of the most famous characters at USC was a feisty, disheveled mutt who liked to chase cars down University Avenue.

He was christened George Tirebiter and became the school's official athletic mascot.

"The students loved him and he roamed around campus on weekdays, partied on the Row on weekends, sometimes even going on trips with USC to out-of-town ballgames," USC archivist Claude Zachary wrote. "He became known for always barking at USC's opponents."

Some mystery surrounds the origins of Tirebiter, "a large, nondescript mongrel resembling an Airedale," in Zachary's words. But the dog seems to have been more or less adopted by a couple of students after the death of his original owner, a neighborhood resident.

After students elected him the official mascot, Tirebiter "rode around the football field in a convertible and at one game chased Cal's mascot, Oski the Bear, and bit him on the nose," brags a display in his honor on campus. (Luckily for Tirebiter, Oski was a costumed character.)

In 1947, Tirebiter made headlines when he disappeared during football season.

Several days later, four UCLA students showed up at the Los Angeles Times building in the company of Tirebiter, whom they had "found" on the Westwood campus. They couldn't explain how it happened, but the letters "UCLA" had been shaved into his fur.

Tirebiter still made it to the USC-UCLA game, wearing a sweater that covered up the offending initials.

Alas, "fame, or maybe the advancing years, took a toll on George," The Times wrote a few years later, and "he became a bit of a problem," nipping not just at tires and rival mascots but at humans.

He was retired to a farm in El Centro. But old habits are tough to break. One day in 1950, while chasing a set of inviting whitewalls on a nearby road, he was run over and killed.

"Tires are safe now," the Daily Trojan lamented.

A funeral procession wended its way through campus in his honor -- the cars moving at just the kind of slow pace that Tirebiter appreciated.

A few months later, the Student Senate voted to replace him with an 18-month-old mongrel owned by a local doughnut shop proprietor.

Tirebiter II, as he was known, won over several other mascot candidates, The Times noted, "including a horse named Hector."

Tirebiter II barked like Tirebiter I "but actually was not related," Zachary wrote, no matter what gossips said.

The original Tirebiter proved to be a tough act to follow.

Tirebiter II was "nervous in front of crowds and routinely barked himself hoarse during football games," a university history said.

It couldn't have helped his mental state that in 1951, he was snatched by the UCLA rooting section before a game. He was recaptured before the kickoff (and before anyone could shave initials into his coat).

But, in 1952, UCLA partisans grabbed him again and held him for five days.

In 1953, Tirebiter II retired to a farm, no doubt thankful for the solitude.

He was succeeded by Tirebiter III, who proved difficult to handle. By now, Tirebiters seemed to come and go at USC as quickly as emperors during the decline of Rome.

Tirebiter III was voted out by students after one year and his position was left vacant until 1957, when Tirebiter IV came on the scene. After one season, he also was given the heave-ho and adopted by a professor, living out his final 12 years in obscurity.

The slogan of USC's mascot program since then could be: "No Dogs Need Apply." Only horses -- all called Traveler -- have been used since 1961. (Hector was rejected again).

But Tirebiter's name has not been forgotten.

"Bite On," a recent children's book by George Reichart, recounts the adventures of George Tirebiter V, a fictional great-great-grandson of the original.

And, in 2006, a Tirebiter statue by San Pedro sculptor Michael Davis was unveiled on Trousdale Parkway, formerly University Avenue, the street Tirebiter I used to patrol.

Donated by alumnus Ron Bloom, the installation depicts the mutt, decked out in a cap and sweater, sitting next to three tires that are topped by a football. Various references to USC's gridiron past, such as memorable scores, are hidden in the work.

Quickly becoming part of USC tradition, the Tirebiter sculpture, like the Tommy Trojan statue up the block, is swathed in canvas before USC-UCLA games to protect it from being painted blue and gold by Bruin supporters.

"It's quite an honor," sculptor Davis said.

Traveler may draw the cheers, but USC fans have told Davis that they like to pat Tirebiter for good luck on the way to the games.

"The last time I was over there," Davis said, "I noticed that the nose seems to be getting polished."

The bronze Tirebiter, meanwhile, wears an expectant look as though he hears something in the distance -- a car, perhaps. But Trousdale is now closed to vehicular traffic. Tires are safe.

--

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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