Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, a site devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. Today, he looks at the victims of the annual USC-UCLA prank war ahead of Saturday's game.
He's 10-feet tall and bulletproof, literally. But even some world leaders might not have the type of security afforded to Tommy Trojan right now.
As usual, USC's life-size bronze statue of a Trojan warrior is spending this week wrapped in duct tape, guarded by his own personal security detail and monitored via video surveillance.
The figure at the heart of campus has also been at the center of the USC-UCLA rivalry almost since the day it was unveiled in 1930. And with the Trojans and Bruins set for their annual battle Saturday in the Rose Bowl, Tommy is once again Public Enemy No. 1 for UCLA students.
The shenanigans started back in 1941 when USC students stole a bell from their crosstown rival and stashed it away at a nearby frat house, initiating the Victory Bell as a traveling trophy between the schools. Not to be outdone, Bruin pranksters returned fire by desecrating Tommy in blue and gold paint and stealing his brass sword, setting off a new-age Trojan War that continues to this day.
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In fact, Tommy's sword has been stolen so many times by UCLA students that he now wields a wooden version because of the hefty cost to replace a brass sword.
Tommy’s seen worse. There was the time his arm was sawed off and welded back on so it appeared he was stabbing himself in the back. He's been doused with paint so many times that, to paraphrase an author, he's been painted and scraped more often than a battleship.
The most elaborate prank came in 1958, when UCLA students decided to launch an aerial assault. Bruin students rented a helicopter, collected bags of manure from a nearby stable and headed to USC’s campus to dump the waste over the statue. But the prank literally blew up in their faces, as the wind from the chopper blades blew much of the manure back onto the would-be saboteurs.
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Apparently UCLA students didn’t learn their lesson. In 1981 they attempted to drop blue and gold paint from another helicopter, only to whiff on their target. They were successful two years ago, however, when they caught USC with its guard down by splashing powder blue paint all over Tommy’s face two weeks prior to the L.A. showdown.
It won’t be nearly as easy getting to Tommy Trojan this week. Besides the duct tape cocoon, a student spirit group, the Trojan Knights is watching over the statue 24 hours a day, and he's being monitored over the web via the university’s TommyCam.
On the flip side, UCLA has responded to paint-based assaults from Trojans by boxing up the Bruin statue on its campus. Still, USC students have already antagonized their rivals by dumping red dye into three fountains on the Westwood campus on Monday:
“I can officially say we had no hand in that,” said Eshan Mathur, secretary of the Trojan Knights.
Regardless, the Knights are now awaiting the retaliation they know will come.
"Every year, we deter at least three or four attempts on Tommy … It happens every single year,” explained Mathur, saying most pranksters are inebriated frat boys or pledges under orders.
Mathur’s actually disappointed that UCLA students have lost some the creativity shown from decades ago and instead resorted to just trying to throw paint on Tommy every time the game rolls around.
“There’s not a lot of ingenuity behind these pranks and it's kind of sad because back in the day you used to have a lot of intensity and passion and it feels like a little bit's gone from there,” he said.
Maybe a more competitive balance on the football field would restore elaborate schemes from the UCLA student body. Since 1998, UCLA has defeated USC just once – a 13-9 upset in 2006 that knocked the Trojans out of the BCS Championship Game.
In fact, the best prank UCLA pulled in recent years might have been by its PR department, which took out a huge ad in the Los Angeles Times in 2008 featuring new coach Rick Neuheisel proclaiming, "The Football Monopoly In Los Angeles Is Officially Over."
Not quite. It's been more of the same the last two seasons, with the Bruins falling by identical scores of 28-7 in both games, and continuing to fall well behind the Trojans in the Pac-10 standings. But with this year's game on UCLA’s turf and USC limping in with a 7-5 record and a gimpy starting quarterback, this might be UCLA’s best chance to turn the tables.
Neuheisel better break through soon with UCLA fans growing impatient with a step backwards in his third year on the job, and a 4-7 disaster that could cause some heads to roll on the Bruin coaching staff. With an ax to grind after a gratuitous Trojan touchdown in the final minute of last year's game and a helicopter at his disposal, Neuheisel might even be plotting his own air strike on Tommy.
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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.