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USC Week: A Brief History of USC Football

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We could analyze the Wake Forest game, but I'm not going to do that. All that matters is we went on the road and came out with a tough victory.

USC's 1888 Team

It's USC week, and in order to better know your enemy we present a brief history of USC football. Most of the information contained in this article was taken from the most excellent book "Fight On - The Colorful Story of USC Football".

College football started (roughly, this article is not about that arguement) around 1869 in the Ivy League schools. West coast schools picked up the game later, with USC playing their first game in the fall if 1888. The game had little resemblance to the game we see today. Each side had 25 players and resembled rugby more than football. Several scandals plagued football in the early 1900's, specifically in 1906 and again in 1909, with the scandals revolving around the brutality of the game and the payment of players. USC dropped football for a few years, instead trying rugby, but it never caught on like football, so in 1914, USC resumed playing football.

The nickname "Trojans" was coined in 1912 by Owen R. Bird of the Los Angeles Times who wrote:

The term  Trojan, as applied to USC, means to me that no matter what the situation, what the odds, or what the conditions, the completion must be carried on to the end, and those who strive must give all that they have..."

USC's first big-name coach was "Gloomy" Gus Henderson, nicknamed "Gloomy" because of his melancholy nature. Henderson compiled a record of 45-7 record (although 0-5 against California), from 1919 to 1924 and still has the highest winning percentage of any USC coach at .865.

Considerable developments occurred during Henderson's tenure:

  • The Rose Bowl was constructed, the first game being played against Penn State on January 1st, 1923.
  • The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was constructed, seating 70,000.
  • USC was admitted to the Pacific Coast Conference. Members were California, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State.

Howard Harding Jones followed Henderson, coaching USC from 1925 to 1940. He racked up a 121-36-13 record for a .750 winning percentage, with a 25-game winning streak from 1931 to 1933.

The USC-Notre Dame rivalry was established in 1926. The rivalry helped in establishing college football as a national sport. Notre Dame's coach Knute Rockne was a celebrity in his day, so the rivalry was heavily covered by the national sports media. The USC-Notre Dame rivalry is the oldest intersectional rivalry in college football, having been played since 1926 (but skipping World War II years, '43, '44, and '45).

I must note here that "Fight On" contains several colorful episodes about Henderson, Jones, and Rockne, such as the time Henderson offered to fight Penn State's coach at midfield of the Rose Bowl. The book provides a complete history of USC football, and is an excellent and entertaining read for USC fans.

Jones died of a heart attack in 1941, two months before the start of football season. After his death, USC football languished for 20 years. The man who revived USC became a legend. That man was John McKay. McKay coached at USC from 1960 to 1975, winning four national titles in 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1974. He had two Heisman trophy winners, Mike Garrett in 1965 and OJ Simpson in 1968. It was McKay that established USC as "Tailback U".

John Robinson became the next great USC coach after McKay elected to leave and coach in the NFL. Robinson coached from 1976 to 1982, winning a national title, and adding two more Heisman trophy winners, Charles White in 1978, and Marcus Allen in 1981.

The above (greatly) abbreviated history forms the basis of USC football. We would be remiss if we failed to mention the 1970 USC-Alabama game, which featured Sam "Bam" Cunningham as USC smashed Paul "Bear" Bryant's Alabama team 42-21. The game is credited with accelerating the integration of blacks into Southern universities faster than the civil rights movement. Should you wish to know more, "Fight On" contains a detailed account, and the book "Career In Crisis: Paul Bear Bryant and the 1971 Season of Change" is focused on the issue.


  • USC has seven Heisman trophy winners:

Mike Garrett (1965), O.J. Simpson (1968), Charles White (1979) , Marcus Allen (1981), Carson Palmer (2002), Matt Leinart (2004, and Reggie Bush (2005)

  • Eleven National Championships:

1928 (Dickinson Poll), 1931, 1932, 1939 (Dickinson Poll), 1962, 1967, 1972, 1974, 1978, 2003, 2004

  • The USC mascot is "Traveler", a pure white horse ridden by a Trojan warrior. The tradition began in 1961 after USC's director of special events spotted the horse at the 1961 Rose Bowl parade and asked rider/owner Richard Saukko if he wanted to ride him around the Coliseum as USC's new mascot.
  • USC's song, "Fight On",(the link plays the song) is one the most-recognized fight songs in college football.

Fight On for ol' SC
Our men Fight On to victory.
Our Alma Mater dear,
looks up to you
Fight On and win
For ol' SC
Fight On to victory
Fight On!