The winner of the annual USC-UCLA football game, perhaps America’s greatest crosstown rivalry, is given year-long possession of the Victory Bell.
The 295-pound bell originally clanged from atop a Southern Pacific freight locomotive. It was given to UCLA in 1939 as a gift from the UCLA Alumni Association. For 2 seasons, cheerleaders rang the bell after each Bruin point.
At the opening game of UCLA’s 1941 football season, 6 members of USC’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity infiltrated the UCLA rooting section. After the game, they helped Bruin students load the bell onto a waiting truck bound for Westwood. But then, one Trojan quietly removed the key to the truck, and while the Bruins went to get a replacement, the Trojans drove off with the bell.
The bell remained hidden for more than a year, first in the fraternity’s basement, then in the Hollywood Hills, Santa Ana and other locations. At one point, it was even concealed beneath a haystack. Bruin students tried to locate the bell, but to no avail.
The controversy died down for a while, until a picture of the bell was printed in “The Wampus,” a USC magazine. This re-ignited the rivalry, as students from UCLA retaliated by painting the Tommy Trojan statue at USC and then Trojan students burned USC initials on UCLA lawns. Police had to be called several times. The conflict got so out of hand that Dr. Rufus B. von KleinSmid, then USC’s president, threatened to cancel the USC-UCLA game if any further disorders occurred.
On Nov. 12, 1942, the bell was wheeled in front of Tommy Trojan and the student body presidents of both schools — USC’s Bill McKay and UCLA’s Bill Farrer — signed an agreement stating that thereafter the annual winner of the Trojan-Bruin gridiron clash would keep the bell for the following year. In the case of a tie, the bell would be retained by the school that won the previous year’s game. The USC Alumni Association later repaid the UCLA Alumni Association for half the cost of the bell.
At the time, the arrangement might have seemed like a bad deal for the Bruins, since they had yet to defeat USC. But that first year, 1942, UCLA beat USC, 14-7.
Since the bell became a trophy, its carriage has been painted cardinal 39 times while in USC’s possession and blue 31 times while in UCLA’s hold (there were 4 ties). (Does not include 2 USC wins vacated due to NCAA penalty; original record: 41.)
Although the Victory Bell is one of college football’s most famous trophies, it is probably the least seen. For all but 2 days of the year, the bell sits in a warehouse or a vault. The universities only display the bell during the first 3 quarters of the USC-UCLA game and on the Monday following the game, when it is delivered to the winning school’s campus. Then the Victory Bell, which gained its reputation from being hidden, goes back into hiding.