Lillie, a 125-pound end on the first ragtag USC team, said: “The only available opposition was a club team which carried the name of Alliance. Our first game was November 14, 1888, right at the university and we won by a score of 16-0.
“In those days a touchdown scored four points, with the play which now corresponds to the conversion after touchdown adding two more points. A field goal scored five points, a safety scored two. “The second game against Alliance was played more than two months later on January 19, 1889, uptown on a vacant field bordered by Grand, Hope, Eighth and Ninth streets. The club team had improved considerably and we managed to score only a single touchdown to win, 4-0.”
Frank Suffel and Henry H. Goddard were playing coaches for this first team which was literally put together by quarterback Arthur Carroll. He volunteered to make the pants for the team. Appropriately, Carroll later became a tailor in Riverside.
The growth of USC and its football program coincides with the growth of Los Angeles, which had been founded only 99 years before the cornerstone was laid at the university in 1880 in an uncultivated mustard field. At the time, Los Angeles still retained characteristics of its earlier pueblo days.
American football at the turn of the century was a combination of rugby, soccer and pure mayhem. The rules provided for a playing field of 110 yards in length, exclusive of the end zones, and games were played in 45-minute halves with a 10-minute intermission. Intentional tackling below the waist, a fundamental and coached procedure now, was judged a foul then, just like unnecessary roughness.
USC fielded another team in 1889 (without a coach) and encountered its first collegiate opponent, St. Vincent’s, now known as Loyola Marymount. The Methodists or Wesleyans (the name Trojans would come later) thrashed St. Vincent’s, 40-0, and then beat a Pasadena club team which featured the dreaded Flying Wedge, 26-0.
So far, so good. A pair of two-game seasons and USC was undefeated, untied and unscored upon. Then, because of student apathy and some financial problems, USC didn’t have a team in 1890. A pattern developed in which USC, still coachless, would play a one to four-game schedule—without much success—until 1897 when Lewis Freeman became the school’s first non-playing coach. Not only did he outfit the team in sharp, new uniforms—turtle-necked shirts with “USC” inscribed on the front, knee-length pants and ankle-high shoes—he produced a winning team with a then-representative schedule.
USC, under Freeman, won five of its six games, losing only to the San Diego YMCA, 18-0. Freeman then moved on, but the Methodists continued their winning ways, recording a 5-1-1 record in 1898—losing to and being tied by Los Angeles High School.
It was during the late 1890s and the early 1900s that USC developed a rivalry with neighboring Occidental and Pomona, the early stand-ins for Notre Dame, California and Stanford.
The year 1904 marked the arrival of Harvey Holmes, the first salaried USC coach. He stayed four years, compiled a record of 19 wins, five losses and three ties and expanded USC’s schedule to 10 games in 1905, including a first meeting with Stanford. USC lost that game, 16-0, as one of the West Coast’s most prestigious rivalries began. The teams wouldn’t meet again in football until 1918.
Major college teams do not schedule too many “breathers” today because of financial considerations. But USC wasn’t thinking of the gate when it padded its 6-3-1 record in 1905 with victories over the likes of the National Guard, Whittier Reform and the Alumni.
USC continued to play football in 1908 under coach Bill Traeger. In 1909 and 1910 the team was under a coach who was to become famous in another sport. Dean Bartlett Cromwell was called the “Maker of Champions” during his 40 years at USC—track and field champions, that is. A legendary figure in track and field, Cromwell’s teams won 12 NCAA titles, including nine in a row (1935-1943).
As a football coach, Cromwell had only modest success with 3-1-2 and 7-0-1 records in 1909 and 1910 and later a three-year record of 11-7-3 when he served as USC’s football coach from 1916 through 1918.
Between Cromwell’s first and second terms as football coach (along with a two-year tenure by Ralph Glaze, 1914-15), USC decided to move up in class athletically.
Rugby, as played by California and Stanford, was USC’s game in 1911 and a school spokesman said, “We are looking for a foothold on an athletic ladder that will carry us, we hope, to a level of competition to the proportion of our ambitious, restless, growing young institution.”
The results were disastrous. USC was badly outclassed for three years (1911-13) by more experienced rugby teams. It suffered financial reverses as well.
But all was not lost in this departure from American football. The Methodist school that was founded in a mustard field got a nickname that would identify it and its students and alumni glamorously for years to come.
Nicknames were popular in the early 1900s, but the school didn’t care much to be called Methodists or Wesleyans. So Owen R. Bird, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, came up with a nickname that was to endure.
It was Bird’s belief that “owing to the terrific handicaps under which the athletes, coaches and managers of the university were laboring and against the overwhelming odds of larger and better equipped rivals, the name ‘Trojan’ suitably fitted the players.”
When USC began playing football again in 1914, it also resumed its relationship with Occidental and Pomona. But the Trojans wanted to be known beyond the limited confines of Bovard Field so they began to schedule “big-time” foes such as St. Mary’s, Oregon and California.
USC split with California in 1915, winning, 28-10, and losing 23-21. Another traditional series was inaugurated.
World War I put a damper on USC’s athletic ambitions and Troy played a restricted schedule from 1917 through 1919.
USC had some outstanding players during its formative years, athletes such as Elwin Caley (whose 107-yard punt return in 1902 on a 110-yard field still stands as a school record), Hal Paulin, Arthur Hill, Roy Allan, Court Decius, Fred Kelly, Fred Teschke, Rabbit Malette, Tank Campbell, Turk Hunter, Dan McMillan and Herb Jones. But the Trojans wouldn’t become nationally recognized in football until the 1920s.
Elmer "Gloomy Gus" Henderson has the best winning percentage, 45-7 (.865), of any coach in USC’s history. More importantly, Henderson, in his six seasons at the school (1919-1924), achieved national recognition for USC and established the format for successful teams of the future. Under Henderson, USC recorded some historic firsts:
- Appearing in the 1923 Rose Bowl and beating Penn State, 14-3.
- Winning 10 games in a season twice, along with an undefeated season in 1920.
- Moving out of Bovard Field, where a turnaway crowd would be 10,000, to play in the vast Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where crowds of 70,000 would become routine for Trojan games.
Henderson was the first USC coach to recruit aggressively and he persuaded talented Southern California athletes to stay home and attend USC rather than to pursue their education at California or Stanford.
He also was an on-the-field innovator. His spread formations were copied by coaches and some elements of his offense are used today by college teams and the NFL.
“Gloomy Gus” was a well-known cartoon character of the era and Henderson was saddled with that nickname by Los Angeles Times sportswriter, Paul Lowry, because of the way he poor-mouthed the Trojans’ prospects before a game.
USC had a 4-1 record in 1919, went undefeated in 1920 and was 10-1 in 1921 and again in 1922, two seasons in which the Trojans outscored their opposition, 598 to 83.
USC had a 6-2 record in 1923 which included the first football game ever to be played in the Coliseum—a 23-7 win over Pomona on October 6—and a later Coliseum game, a 13-7 loss to Cal that attracted 72,000 fans and sent a signal to Easterners that West Coast football had really caught on.
Henderson had a 9-2 record in his last season at USC in 1924, a year that featured intersectional games with Syracuse and Missouri, both of which the Trojans won.
During his tenure at USC, Henderson recruited and developed such outstanding players as Chet Dolley, Harold Galloway, Johnny Leadingham, Charley Dean, Roy (Bullet) Baker, Gordon Campbell, Andy Toolen, Lowell Lindley, Hobo Kincaid, Indian Newman, Hobbs Adams, Hayden Phythian, Holley Adams, Norman Anderson, Otto Anderson, Johnny Hawkins, Hank Lefebvre, Eddie Leahy, Manuel Laraneta, Butter Gorrell, Jeff Cravath and Leo Calland.
Two of Henderson’s sophomores on the 1924 squad, guard Brice Taylor and quarterback Mort Kaer, would later become USC’s first All-Americans. Henderson is credited with recruiting Morley Drury, who would become known as the “Noblest Trojan of Them All.”
Despite his record, Henderson was fired after the 1924 season, some said because he went 0-5 against California during his tenure.
- Early Years (1888-1924)
- Thundering Herd (1925-1940)
- Forties & Fifties (1941-1959)
- Glory Years, Part I (1960-1975)
- Glory Years, Part II (1976-1982)
- Wilderness Years (1983-2001)
- Return to Glory (2002-present)
(Much of the material on the page is adapted from Mal Florence's 1980 book about USC’s football history, “The Trojan Heritage.”)