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When UCLA, USC meet in football, defense (against pranks) is key

While city rivals' teams prepare to do battle on Saturday, students guard against potential attacks on campus during the week, with particular attention paid to Tommy Trojan and Bruin Bear statues.

November 21, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • USC senior Phill Larson plays catch while helping to guard the Tommy Trojan statue on the USC campus. Both USC and UCLA are taking steps to protect their beloved statues from vandalism heading into Saturday's rivalry game.
USC senior Phill Larson plays catch while helping to guard the Tommy Trojan… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

There is pomp and circumstance on one side and paranoia on the other. This is the UCLA-USC football rivalry — even away from the field.

The Trojans and Bruins face off in their annual game Saturday night at the Coliseum. But the games relating to the game have already begun.

USC and UCLA students are playing offense and defense, keeping a close eye on statues of Tommy Trojan and the Bruin Bear.

This marks the 70th anniversary of the first hostilities. So, on a stormy Sunday afternoon . . .

Three Trojan Knights, one in a suit and bow tie, dance in the rain to Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," part of an hourly ritual that includes ringing the Victory Bell and bellowing a USC chant.

This is guard duty around Tommy Trojan. Somewhere, also out in the rain, a UCLA group could be plotting and planning. Who knows?

"If they got to Tommy, I would feel like a failure," says senior Phillip Larson, president of the Knights, the campus organization charged with defending the statue.

Meanwhile, across town that night . . .

The temperature drops below 50 outside UCLA's Morgan Center, where four young women are huddled near the bear statue when 10 people in USC shirts approach.

The landmark is encased in a box this week for extra protection, but the Bruin Bear Security Force moves into action.

Alisa Wyman musters her best LAPD voice, asking, "Hey guys, what's up?" Wary, Kathryn Lynyak, another in the security team, nods to the box and tells a different member of the unit, "Check the other side."

Just checking out the campus, the USC shirts say. "This tends to make you a little paranoid," Wyman admits.

All over a couple of hunks of bronze — though this week you would think that Tommy Trojan and the Bruin Bear were the most valuable works of art in Los Angeles.

The UCLA-USC rivalry has sparked pranks galore, but none sweeter for either side than getting at the other's statue.

Attacks are random, and a solid defense is a necessity. The Trojan Knights have been at it for decades. The UCLA Rally Committee was handed security detail two years ago, after the bear was doused with red and yellow — close enough to cardinal and gold — paint.

"I'm a trusting person, but not this time of year," says Pauline Dinh, chairman of the UCLA Rally Committee. "If you're wearing red on our campus late at night, you're not the smartest person."

Original sin

The myths and legends in ongoing one-upmanship read like a Homer-esque tale with many Homer Simpson-like moments.

UCLA alums proudly point out the most memorable prank, the dumping of 500 pounds of manure onto Tommy Trojan from a helicopter in 1958.

Of course, USC alums say the helicopter rotors blew manure back on those who dumped it, little actually reaching the target.

One fact that isn't debated is how this all started.

The UCLA Alumni Assn. donated an old, 295-pound locomotive bell to the student body in 1939. The "Victory Bell" tolled for every UCLA point at games.

In 1941, after UCLA's season-opening victory over Washington State, six Trojan Knights — "Folk heroes all," current Knight Larson says — posed as UCLA students, loaded the ball on a truck and whisked it away. UCLA students struck back, attacking Tommy Trojan.

Escalation followed, leading to the animosity of today.

"I do have friends at USC," Dinh says. "We really like each other, but it's the rivalry we can't get past this week."

In 1942, Bob McKay, USC's student body president, and Bill Farrer, his UCLA counterpart, worked out a treaty where the bell would go to the winner each season.

USC paid $150 for its share of the bell. UCLA won it back that year with its first victory over USC.

"UCLA is a good school; we have to respect that," says Chris Yoshonis, a current member of the Trojan Knights. "But we hate them."

Knights and day

Tommy Trojan, a gift to USC in 1931, has been protected around the clock during rivalry week by the Trojan Knights since the 1950s.

"As players we have our rivalry on the field that we settle," USC receiver Brandon Carswell says. "I guess this is the way students can get into it and have fun with the rivalry as well."

Joe Jares, a 1959 graduate, was a sophomore when he was assigned to guard the statue. "My roommate and I woke up at 4 a.m. and we were the only ones left," Jares recalls. "Everyone else had gone back to the dorm where it was warm. So we left too. UCLA could have poured whatever it wanted on Tommy. We were the world's worst guards."

Over the years, Tommy Trojan has been both painted and mutilated — his sword has been cut off and reattached a few times.

The statue has been wrapped from head to foot in duct tape during this week for years. Still, the Knights cast a wary eye.

"There were five middle-age guys in suits walking across campus yesterday and I started thinking, 'What could they be up to?' " says Larson, a business major. "This is the biggest thing we do. Guys start asking in September about the Tommy watch."

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