NCAA.com has previously taken college sports fans down the rabbit hole behind how some of the country’s most beloved college mascots came to be. While Yale’s living, breathing bulldog mascot Handsome Dan wasn’t the first real-life bulldog the school had, Handsome Dan I started a lineage that now stretches to Handsome Dan XVIII.
As unlikely as it sounds, Youngstown State is nicknamed the Penguins because of a remark an opposing basketball coach reportedly made five years before there was a student poll to decide the school’s mascot. All because of an unheated locker room and the lack of warmups caused Youngstown State’s basketball team to wave their arms like penguins.
Here’s the true story of how Southern California adopted the nickname “Trojans.”
What is a Trojan?
“Trojans” originally referred to people from the city of Troy, which in Greek mythology, fought the Greeks in the Trojan war. The Trojan War reportedly took place during the Bronze Age — hundreds, if not thousands, of years B.C.
Owen Bird, who is credited by Southern California as the one who came up with the nickname said, “The term ‘Trojan’ as applied to USC means to me that no matter what the situation, what the odds or what the conditions, the competition must be carried on to the end and those who strive must give all they have and never be weary in doing so.”
Where did the nickname ‘Trojans’ come from?
According to the school’s website, Southern California Athletic Director Warren Bovard, whose father Dr. George Bovard was the school president, asked Los Angeles Times sports editor Owen Bird to help Southern California choose a nickname. Southern California’s website credits Bird, the sports editor, as being the one who created the nickname “Trojans.”
It wasn’t unusual for school nicknames or mascots to come from newspapers. The University of Arizona became the “Wildcats” after a Los Angeles Times writer wrote in 1914 that “The Arizona men showed the fight of wild cats.”
However, it’s somewhat unclear as to whether Bird created “Trojans” on his own, or if he thought of a nickname at Bovard’s request.
“All of the media and coverage and write-ups that I’ve seen basically say that Owen Bird covered a track meet in early 1912,” said Claude Zachary, a university archivist and manuscripts librarian at the University of Southern California Libraries, “which USC lost but he was struck by their fighting spirit so he said they fought like ‘Trojans.'”
Warren Bovard and Bird once rode together in a parade organized to honor Fred Kelly, USC’s first gold medalist and “the world’s champion hurdler,” according to a story published in the Los Angeles Times, so the athletic director and sports editor may have been in the same social circles.
“At this time, the athletes and coaches of the university were under terrific handicaps,” Bird said, according to the school. “They were facing teams that were bigger and better-equipped, yet they had splendid fighting spirit. The name ‘Trojans’ fitted them.
“I came out with an article prior to a showdown between USC and Stanford in which I called attention to the fighting spirit of USC athletes and named them ‘Trojan’ all the time, and it stuck.”
Using the newspapers.com archives, NCAA.com was able to find a story written by Bird, published in The Pomona (Calif.) Progress prior to a big track and field meet between Southern California and Stanford.
“The next big track and field clash of the southern season will be the set-to between Stanford and the University of Southern California Trojans next Saturday afternoon over the Bovard cinder path,” Bird wrote.
So Bird’s story adds up and we have receipts to prove it.
While today it may seem odd to consider Southern California, a school with claims to nine national championships in football, as an underdog — “facing teams that were bigger and better-equipped,” as Bird put it — newspaper archives show that this was the case in the early 1900s.
One headline in the Los Angeles Times in January 1912 — a month before Bird reportedly created the nickname “Trojans” for Southern California — read in all-caps, “U.S.C. athletes now rank with big boys.”
The subheadline was “recognized at last.”
The story, which was written by Bird, detailed how Southern California had finally gotten the University of California to agree to regular athletic competition, to which Bovard “has been striving for the past three years.”
“U.S.C. is an institution of over 1800 students and there are over 1000 men now attending the university,” Bird wrote.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Southern California didn’t even play football during the time when it adopted “Trojans.” The football program’s media guide states that the school played rugby, rather than football, from 1911 through 1913. “USC stopped playing American football – you know, football – per se, and the football team became a rugby team for two or three years,” said Zachary, the Southern California university archivist and manuscripts librarian, “and then it was only in the mid-1910s that it came back. It was only two or three years. It was really kind of playing around with a lot of that situation.
“We were a small place, really, for the first 30, 40 years. We had a lot of financial ups and downs in the L.A. area, it was a boom-and-bust situation and the university almost closed a couple times and the college itself was really quite small until the end of the teens and early twenties, where things really started to ramp up a lot.”
By the way, USC’s media guide also says that the 1912 college football season — for those schools that played football and not rugby — was the first season when touchdowns were worth six points, not five.
To further show how different times were back then, in November 1912 — months after Bird first penned the nickname “Trojans” — Southern California lost 41-0 to a team called the “Waraths” and after the game, Bovard “stated his men would not have been surprised if a bigger score had been rolled against them,” according to the Los Angeles Evening Express.
Clearly, this was before Southern California’s national championship total ranked in the top seven in the sport.
Was Southern California ever called anything else?
Southern California’s athletic teams were previously called the “Methodists” or “Wesleyans,” according to the school, whose website says, “neither nickname was looked upon with favor by university officials.” Zachary, the university archivist and manuscripts librarian, said that before “Trojans,” Southern California “had been called, I think, the Methodists or the Cardinal or something to do with our school colors.”
Here are the all-time search results for “Southern California Methodists,” according to newspapers.com.
And here are the results for “Southern California Wesleyans.”
Today, Southern California’s Trojan statue is the target of rambunctious UCLA fans during game-week festivities for the crosstown rivalry. “Over the years, there have been so many, so many incidents of people, of the Bruins fans, coming over before the rivalry game and painting, or we would say ‘defaced’ the Trojan or stole the sword out of Tommy’s hand,” Zachary said. “Trojanites would stand guard in front of the statue for a few days before the game to prevent [it], and the USC students would go across town to the Bruins statue on the UCLA campus and paint it red or do some stuff like that over there, so there’s lots of back and forth in that rivalry. So that’s always amusing.”
The following excerpt comes from a story published in The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, Calif, in October 1999, detailing some of the history of the UCLA-USC rivalry.
A 1973 story published in the Independent, of Long Beach, California, detailed the pregame preparations on campus before the rivalry game.
“At 6:25 p.m., a girl carrying books stops to talk to two campus security guards,” the Independent reported. “She points to the Tommy Trojan statue, which is covered with canvas, cinched tight from all angles.”
She asked the security guards why the statue was covered.
“Don’t want paint on it,” one guard said, according to the newspaper, which quoted the guard as further explaining, “And we pour cardinal and gold paint on UCLA things.”
Before the 1965 UCLA-USC game, Southern California students wrapped up the statue in canvas two weeks before the game, according to The San Bernardino County Sun.
On the UCLA campus, “the Bruin Bear is covered with a wooden chalkboard box each year during the university’s rivalry week leading up to the annual football game against USC,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “The statue was first shielded in 2010, after similar vandalism left the bear covered in red and yellow oil-based paint. In that instance, the attack caused $20,000 in damage.”
Some of the fan antics in the rivalry may have required student doubles.
“UCLA fans once unsuccessfully tried to drop blue paint on USC’s Tommy the Trojan statue,” The Palm Beach Post reported in 2005. “From a helicopter.”