Students + Campus

From live bears to the Victory Bell: a century of spirited rivalry

"UCLA: The First Century"
Left, UCLA students cart the Victory Bell out for a rally. Right, Bruin mascots weren't always students in suits.


UCLA and USC, who will duke it out on the gridiron this weekend, truly have been rivals since the beginning, when UCLA was known as the “southern branch” of Berkeley, or the “twigs” to USC. The just-released UCLA history book, “UCLA: The First Century,” gives Bruins a look at how the infamous rivalry developed, the pranks they pulled and the times when both campuses even cooperated (albeit during a time of war).

It started with the name-calling, author Marina Dundjerski noted in the book. In 1919, UCLA rose on the grounds of the old Los Angeles State Normal School, a teachers school in downtown Los Angeles that served mostly women. As the Southern Branch grew into a more co-ed institution, women outnumbered men six to one, and the Trojans, not content with “twigs,” also riled up the male students by calling it “the Westwood School for Girls.”

Though UCLA used the Coliseum as its home stadium, UCLA and USC football didn’t play in the same division until 1929. The first cross-town game took place that September, but a 1941 prank really fanned the embers of the rivalry. UCLA’s Victory Bell, which rang out every point scored at football games, was nabbed by USC students dressed as Bruins.

“After the Victory Bell was stolen, students began a rash of vandalism at USC and UCLA,” Dundjerski wrote. “Tommy Trojan was defaced several times, while ‘USC’ was burned into UCLA’s green lawns … A plot unfolded to kidnap USC’s student body president if the bell was not returned. After extensive negotiations … students finally agreed to return the bell on the condition that it become a permanent game trophy.”

In 1942, USC chipped in half the cost of the bell’s maintenance, and the bell has been a trophy ever since, claimed by the winning team. Not that that stopped the pranks — the book’s final chapter, “Bruin Rites of Passage,” devotes two pages to ways Trojans and Bruins tormented each other, from banner-stealing to mascot-painting to one notorious helicopter incident (in 1958, UCLA used a helicopter to drop manure on Tommy, though the book says they missed their target). The UCLA-USC rivalry is “the only such rivalry between two major universities in the same city,” Dundjerski noted.

But the homecoming games weren’t purely antagonistic. During World War II, the 1942 game became a million-dollar war-bond drive. Students from both schools held fundraisers and offered prizes in the weeks leading up to the match, and sold additional bonds during the game. All together, UCLA and USC raised an amazing $2.1 million — about $27 million today — in a stirring show of cooperation, Dundjerski wrote.

As the Southern Branch of the University of California (SBUC), our first mascots were the Cubs — cleverly, SBUC backwards and a nod to the older UC Berkeley’s bear mascot, Dundjerski noted in the book. As early as 1922, live bears were occasionally brought to campus events, with results that ranged from adorable to disastrous.

The 1922 celebration of UCLA’s basketball championship was enlivened when a bear cub was brought in for the day — until he bit one of the players. Things ran a little more smoothly in the ’30s, when ASUCLA began renting live bears and their Hollywood trainers. The bears would run onto the field at the Coliseum, to the crowd's delight.

Even after the Coliseum banned the wild animals in the ’40s, ASUCLA tried to keep the tradition going at other events, and in 1950 bought its own bear cub, thinking they would have a few years before it grew too big to handle. They were overwhelmed within a year and the six-foot-tall bear made a career change to join the circus in ’51.

The mistake was repeated in 1961, when alumni boosters gave the campus an 18-pound cub named Josephine. She lived in Rally Committee Chairman Russ Serber’s backyard until she, too, outgrew her handler. “I began by handling the bear, but now it handles me,” the book quoted Serber as saying. Josephine moved to the San Diego Zoo in ’62.

UCLA: The First Century” is on sale now in the UCLA Store at Ackerman. The book was sponsored by the UCLA Alumni Association, with additional support from the Ahmanson Foundation and Gold Shield Alumnae of UCLA.

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