Traveler, USC's Mascot
Traveler, the noble white horse that appears at all USC home football games with a regal Trojan warrior astride, is one of the most famous college mascots.
Traveler first made an appearance at USC football games in 1961 (in the home opener versus Georgia Tech). Bob Jani, then USC’s director of special events, and Eddie Tannenbaum, then a junior at USC, had spotted Richard Saukko riding his white horse, Traveler I, in the 1961 Rose Parade. They persuaded Saukko to ride his white horse around the Coliseum during USC games, serving as a mascot. Ever since, whenever USC scores, the band plays “Conquest” and Traveler gallops around the Coliseum.
Because of poor health, Saukko stopped riding after the 1988 season (he passed away in March of 1992). His successors have been Cass Dabbs, Rick Oas, Tom Nolan, Ardeshir Radpour, Chuck O'Donnell (Saukko's stepson) and current rider Hector Aguilar. Patricia Saukko DeBernardi (Saukko's widow) was Traveler's owner and trainer until she retired following the 2002 season. She asked Joanne Asman to take over with her own Traveler in 2003 (she also trains and houses the horse for USC). She is president of Asman & Associates, an entertainment and event planning company in Burbank, Calif., and she has spent more than 30 years training and managing equestrian performers.
The current Trojan mascot is Traveler VII. Even though the breed of horse may have changed over the years — ranging from an Arabian/Tennessee Walker to a pure-bred Tennessee Walker to a pure-bred Arabian to a Spanish Andalusian — Traveler’s color has always remained pure white.
In the fall of 2004, the late USC alumnus Bill Tilley (’61) and his wife, Nadine, donated $2 million to provide a permanent endowment to support Traveler. Bill was the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Jacmar Companies, a multifaceted international restaurant and food service enterprise and majority owner of the highly successful B.J.’s Restaurant and Brewery. Nadine is an avid breeder of champion Andalusian horses. She hopes that a future Traveler will be bred at Tilley’s Andalusians, her Hemet ranch that is now known as “The Home of Traveler.”
Saukko first appeared on Traveler in the outfit that actor Charlton Heston wore in “Ben Hur.” That proved to be too cumbersome, so Saukko crafted his own leather costume in 1962, modeled after the Tommy Trojan statue on the USC campus (that outfit is on display in Heritage Hall). But he still sometimes wore Heston’s helmet. Interestingly, Saukko was once employed by Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s “Four Horsemen.”
Legend has it that Heisman Trophy tailback O.J. Simpson decided to come to USC after seeing Traveler on a televised football game. And Trojan faithful swear the horse has an effect on the outcome of games.
“(Former USC coach) John McKay didn’t want to admit that the horse had anything to do with his success,” said Saukko, “but he’d always give me a wink when he saw me waiting in the Coliseum tunnel.”
Added former USC All-American defensive back and assistant coach Nate Shaw: “The horse is one of the greatest inspirational devices USC has. It definitely got the adrenaline going when I was playing and I think it still has an effect on the players. When I was coaching against USC (at Oregon State), we hated to see that horse come down the tunnel because it got USC a little more pumped up.”
Traveler not only appears at Trojan home football games (and even at some away games, including the 1995 Cotton Bowl in Dallas and the 2005 Orange Bowl in Miami, the farthest Traveler has traveled), but also at other Trojan events, as well as at grade and high schools, charity functions and parades (including the past 47 Rose Parades). Traveler has also appeared on screen (including "The Asia Music Awards," "Road To El Dorado," “The Battle of the Gunfighter” and “Snowfire”), on stage (including in the Long Beach Ballet’s “Nutcracker Ballet”), in commercials, in print (Vogue magazine) and at personal appearances with many celebrities (including Janet Jackson, Jamie Foxx, LeeAnne Rimes, Fabio and Fred Roggin).
Incidentally, Traveler I was not the first equine mascot for Troy. The first appearance of a white horse at a Trojan football game occurred as early as 1927, when Louis Shields began a four-year stint aboard a horse owned by a local banker. In 1948, band director Tommy Walker once had USC colors carried by a Trojan on a palomino. Then, before kickoff of the 1954 USC-Pittsburgh game, Arthur J. Gontier III, then a member of the Trojan Knights spirit group (subbing for another rider who backed out at the last moment), shakily rode a rented gray/white horse while donning a costume once worn by actor Jeff Chandler. A more accomplished rider, USC alum Bob Caswell, and his white horse, Rockazar, took over the following game and performed until retiring in 1959.
Besides these horses, USC once even had a canine mascot. A mutt named George Tirebiter I (famous for chasing cars through the USC campus) first appeared at football games in 1940. He survived a publicized dognapping by UCLA in 1947, but succumbed under the tires of an automobile in 1950. He was succeeded by George II for 3 years (1950-52), then George III for 1 year (1953) and finally George IV for 1 year (1957).