As USC’s admission counselors spend the fall travelling to college fairs and visits to your high schools all around the United States and all around the world, we regularly get questions about the history and traditions of USC. This is the perfect time to speak on this subject with Homecoming right around the corner (go Trojans, beat the Bears)!
Founded in 1880, the University of Southern California was one of the first institutions of higher education in SoCal (only slightly younger than our next-door neighbor, Hebrew Union College)! In the beginning, people were often shocked to hear our scrappy new school called a “University,” and we were regularly compared to California’s first public university, UC Berkeley (now you see why this is the perfect time to publish this blog). When we formally opened in 1880, the University employed 10 faculty members and welcomed a class of 53 students. Tuition that first year was $15.00 per semester.The founding of USC shines a light on our long standing emphasis on diversity in our classrooms. In the late 1870s, Judge Robert Widney, one of our original founders, convinced three fellow community leaders from three separate religious groups to help in the creation of USC. As the inaugural class began its first school year, the founders state that USC will “be in every respect for the equal education of both sexes.” Four years later, USC holds its first commencement, and a woman named Minnie Miltimore is named the Valedictorian.
Though USC certainly has a history of academic fortitude, we also share a longstanding relationship with athletic prowess. In 1888, we played our first game of football and beat our opponent 16-0. Though Football may be one of our most popular sports both then AND now, in the early 1900s we had Olympic athletes like Emil Breitkreutz, who won bronze in St. Louis for the 800 meters. A few years later, in what would become a historic event for USC, Los Angeles Times writer Owen Bird gave us our famous moniker, “USC Trojans,” during a track meet against Occidental College. And it stuck. Bird remarked later that it was a perfect fit, because “[USC was] facing teams that were bigger and better-equipped, yet they had splendid fight spirit.”
To this day, you can take photos with Tommy Trojan (or watch him live 24/7 here) and his noble steed, Traveler, who is our official mascot. And we have continued to use Owen Bird’s compliment as an unofficial motto—screamed from one end of campus to another, during finals, sporting events, and even at our friendly tour guides, reminding everyone to “Fight On.”
If you have ever visited USC’s campus, you may have heard the utterance of “Fight On” among friends, and seen the accompanying hand symbol: a V for Victory (definitely not the Peace sign). In part, this can reference our long standing rivalry with our cross-town competitors, UCLA (as well as a rather gory/odd tale from Homer’s The Iliad). The winner of the USC-UCLA game wins the rights to the Victory Bell. During the year, the Trojan Knights, the official hosts of USC, protect the bell and bring it out for special occasions. During the intense week of rivalry prior to this game, the Trojan Knights can be also be seen camped out in front of the statue of Tommy Trojan, protecting him 24 hours a day.
Traditions change, as we know, and this USC tradition has been expanded—along with the University. The Helenes, the first all-women’s service organization at USC, now protects Hecuba, Queen of Troy, who presided over the USC Village. Students have been protecting Tommy Trojan for almost as long as the UCLA-USC rivalry has existed, and the Helenes are excited to start a new tradition and expand inclusion at USC.
Finally, one of my personal favorite traditions is one whose origin we still don’t know. As fans walk to the Coliseum to root for USC, you’ll notice they all kick the flagpoles on the edge of campus. As a sign of good luck, and hope, or simply to remind yourself to keep “Fighting On,” you can hear the clang of the flagpoles almost all the way into the Coliseum.
By Camille Bradshaw