USC’s call­ing card is re­vealed

Af­ter 60 years, one of the most mem­o­rable pranks in ri­valry is a mys­tery no more.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand

A sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian pro­fes­sor and for­mer USC stu­dent, hav­ing caught wind of a forth­com­ing story in The Times, re­cently sent a cryp­tic email to the news­pa­per.

Sixty years ago, the pro­fes­sor, Dayle Barnes, be­longed to an or­ga­ni­za­tion at USC called the Tro­jan Squires, which pulled off one of the most mem­o­rable in a long line of pranks in USC’s ri­valry with UCLA. For the game at the Coli­seum in 1957, UCLA’s stu­dent sec­tion had planned a se­ries of card stunts. The UCLA stu­dents were to hold up plac­ards that would com­bine to form Bru­ins-friendly words and pic­tures.

Ex­cept when the stu­dents ac­tu­ally did hold up their cards, they had been al­tered by a band of USC sabo­teurs. In each stunt, the un­wit­ting UCLA stu­dents re-

vealed a dif­fer­ent pro-USC mes­sage. It caused such a stir that Sports Il­lus­trated wrote about the prank — with­out in­ter­view­ing its cre­ators.

Barnes wrote in the email that re­port­ing about the prank’s cre­ators would be a “tough as­sign­ment” given “the com­plete se­crecy with which the clan­des­tine group of Tro­jan Squires” op­er­ated.

He ex­plained that though he was part of the Squires, the prank was con­ceived and ex­e­cuted by a small, elite unit within the or­ga­ni­za­tion, oper­at­ing un­der deep cover. Barnes didn’t know their iden­ti­ties.

“That is not to deny, how­ever, that more than a few of that year’s mem­ber­ship were em­i­nently qual­i­fied, by back­ground and per­son­al­ity, suc­cess­fully to con­duct a covert as­sign­ment,” he wrote.

The mys­tery en­dured among the dwin­dling pop­u­la­tion of USC and UCLA alumni who keep score of such pranks. There would be no an­swer for 60 years. Un­til now. The sabo­teurs, it turned out, were a group of eight to 10 sopho­mores. Since, they had be­come of­fi­cers in the Air Force and Marines, or lawyers or busi­ness­men.

One be­came the ma­jor­ity leader of the Cal­i­for­nia Assem­bly — “Not us­ing pranks,” the prankster turned politi­cian, Wal­ter Kara­bian, said.

Three of them — Kara­bian, Steve Marien­hoff and Mike Loshin — re­cently spoke on the record about the prank for the first time. Two more, Dave Visel and Jerry Van Wert, recorded a video in­ter­view with the school, a copy of which was pro­vided to The Times by Claude Zachary, an ar­chiv­ist and man­u­script li­brar­ian at USC.

It seems a strange, tri­fling mat­ter for the school to record for pos­ter­ity. But at a time when in­ter-school pranks are at an ebb, lack­ing the cre­ativ­ity or flair of past gen­er­a­tions, their story presents a ques­tion: Why prank at all?

The ac­tion was part of an es­ca­la­tion of hos­til­i­ties that be­gan with USC’s steal­ing of the UCLA vic­tory bell in 1941 and cul­mi­nated in a high (or low) point: A group of UCLA stu­dents, in 1958, rent­ing a he­li­copter, hover­ing over USC’s cam­pus and air-drop­ping sev­eral hun­dred pounds of ma­nure.

In 1957, on the eve of the card prank, USC stu­dents held a late-night rally at the Sher­a­ton Town­house ho­tel — ex­cept it was not a rally, re­ally. It was more an ex­cuse to wake up the UCLA play­ers who were stay­ing at the ho­tel, ac­cord­ing to the Daily Tro­jan news­pa­per. Ear­lier that week, two UCLA stu­dents sneaked onto USC’s cam­pus, likely in­tent on trick­ery. They were in­ter­cepted by USC stu­dents, who shaved their heads and one eye­brow each.

The Squires had dreamed up the card prank a month be­fore. The plan re­quired some spe­cial­ized skills and, as Sports Il­lus­trated wrote, “mod­est amounts of petty theft, es­pi­onage, im­per­son­ation and forgery.”

Spies in­fil­trated the UCLA plan­ning com­mit­tee to get the specs for the plac­ards and to pur­loin one of the mas­ter in­struc­tion cards. The Squires also needed some­one with ac­cess to a printer. Marien­hoff’s fa­ther ran a print­ing shop. So even though he was not a mem­ber of the Squires, he be­came part of the team, sworn to se­crecy.

“It was like a CIA-type thing,” Marien­hoff said.

When the day of the game came, seven Squires wear­ing UCLA col­ors and with the plac­ards smug­gled un­der their shirts showed up early. They found a spot in the up­per part of the stu­dent sec­tion seven rows tall by nine seats wide and swapped out the UCLA cards for their own. Only an usher was there.

Ner­vous, Kara­bian tried to sweet-talk him.

“I said, ‘We’re re­ally go­ing to kick those Tro­jans’ [butts] aren’t we to­day?’ ” Kara­bian said. “He turned to me and said, ‘Look man, I go to USC den­tal school. I’m just work­ing here to­day.’ ”

They were in the clear. The group fin­ished, then hur­ried back to the USC side to wait and watch.

When UCLA be­gan its card stunts, the other side of the sta­dium erupted.

In a corner of the sec­tion was a car­di­nal and gold rec­tan­gle, stamped like a tat­too. For most vari­a­tions, the cards spelled out “SC.”

Other times, they were glee­fully sim­ple: “HA,” or just: “HI” in USC col­ors.

The UCLA stu­dents kept cy­cling through their rou­tine. Even­tu­ally, some­one near the field no­ticed. But they couldn’t stop it.

“The good thing about the card stunt is you’re like a ro­bot,” Loshin said. “You read the in­struc­tion, you put the card in front of your face, and you don’t know what’s go­ing on.”

The se­crecy per­sisted even af­ter­ward. The group was afraid of reper­cus­sions — they’d heard that the un­for­tu­nate UCLA stu­dents in the af­fected sec­tion were ha­rassed by those who thought they were USC plants. But mainly the group was afraid they’d be kicked out of school.

“Boy, were we scared,” Kara­bian said.

They didn’t feel safe un­til they grad­u­ated. But their time for pub­lic­ity was gone. Most went sep­a­rate ways. About a year ago, Kara­bian sought to re­con­nect the gang. But 60 years had left mem­o­ries fuzzy. He couldn’t re­call ev­ery­one who was in­volved. Was Marien­hoff the spy? No, Visel said, it was Visel. Kara­bian went on a search to fill in the blanks.

One ques­tion re­mained: Why prank at all?

“Part of col­lege life is do­ing things that don’t hurt any­body and that are creative,” Loshin said.

It is hard to imag­ine a hos­tile he­li­copter dump­ing ma­nure onto a col­lege cam­pus would be met with shrugs to­day, but even more be­nign pranks have be­come taboo.

That’s a shame, Kara­bian says. He said his mo­ti­va­tion for the trick was sim­ple. Ev­ery­body on cam­pus knew USC would lose. USC was 1-7. UCLA was 7-2. (Ev­ery­body was right: UCLA won 20-9.)

“We were do­ing any­thing we could to have a sea­son that wouldn’t be the most hu­mil­i­at­ing in his­tory,” Kara­bian said.

It was a way to feel as though they could make an im­pact. The plot, he said, “gave us hope.”

Maria Apari­cio

UCLA’S CARD SHOW at the 1957 game fea­tured some pro-USC slo­gans, thanks to a group of USC stu­dents that in­cluded, from left, Dave Visel, Mike Loshin, Wal­ter Kara­bian, Jerry Van Wert and Steve Marien­hoff.

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