50 years at Troy: Dr. Arthur Bartner has created a lasting legacy at USC

Dr. Arthur C. Bartner is stepping down as band director this season after 50 years at the helm of the Trojan marching band. (Sarah Ko / Daily Trojan)

The USC football program has seen plenty of change since 1969. 

It’s seen 10 different head coaches. Countless student-athletes. The highs, five claimed national titles; the lows, four losing seasons. It’s seen Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, Sam Darnold. Scandal and vacated wins.

Unsurprisingly, almost nothing about USC football in 1969 remotely resembles anything from 2019 — that is, apart from Arthur Bartner.

Bartner is just a few weeks away from his final game as director of the USC marching band, a tenure atop the ladder that’s occupied 50 years of his life but hasn’t lost an ounce of the energy that’s turned him into a staple of Trojan football. 

“Looking back, I think I was always this way,” Bartner said of his enthusiasm that has left many wondering how he hasn’t lost his voice over the years. “I was always after perfection … I can’t remember not being the way I am today.”

USC’s bowl game this month will mark the end of Bartner’s time at USC, which started in the John McKay era. Over the years, the Spirit of Troy has become one of the most famous and renowned in the country. 

In that same time frame, the football team has also become one of the most historic college programs in the nation, winning 14 Rose Bowls, five NCAA championships and claiming five Heisman winners. 

Bartner believes the band and team’s successes go hand-in-hand.

“I really feel that I’m part of this game, I feel the band is part of this game,” Bartner said. “You not only have to play the team, you have to play the band. [Opponents know] we’re gonna play these tunes over and over again, we’re gonna be annoying, our crowd’s gonna be loud. And you have to believe that that helps win games.”

Excellence has always been the goal for Bartner, and watching one of his band’s practices, it’s clear he won’t quit until it’s achieved. He’ll yell at kids if they’re not perfectly in line, if anything sounds the slightest bit off or if he feels any of the members aren’t giving it their all.

“We work hard to produce shows we are proud of, and Dr. Bartner won’t let us settle for anything less,” said trombone player Elyse Pollack, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering. “Dr. Bartner acts like a sports coach to motivate us and prevent us from getting lazy throughout the season.”

The Spirit of Troy is most often associated with USC football, but Bartner’s band has made a name for itself time and time again — including its 1979 collaboration with Fleetwood Mac for “Tusk,” which made USC the only collegiate band with a top-10 hit. 

For Bartner, it’s that song that carries the most meaning but the classics that define the University.

“‘Tribute to Troy,’ ‘Fight On,’ ‘Conquest.’ That’s what I call the soundtrack of USC,” Bartner said. “People ask all the time, ‘Am I tired [of] playing these tunes?’ And I’m really not.”

Those three songs have become essential parts of jock rallies, pregame and halftimes shows and seemingly ring throughout the Coliseum hundreds of times per game.

“There’s always been a tremendous connection between the band and the Trojan football team,” former USC head coach Pete Carroll said in an email to Daily Trojan. “We would always tap in and benefit from the energy and excitement they’d bring on gamedays, and their daily practices during the week were a driving force for us too.”

The band has earned a reputation as one of the crazier, more energetic and borderline obnoxious bands in college, and any of their performances will make it clear where that energy originates. 

“Dr. Bartner has an obvious intensity about him,” Carroll said. “He lives with a unique zeal that’s ever-present.”

That intensity manifests as a strong physical presence.

“He could command the band with a single hand gesture,” said Jonathan Goody, a former Spirit of Troy trumpeter from USC’s class of 1987. 

Bartner knows no other way to operate. He has a reputation for being tough on band members and calling out fans at rallies who aren’t cheering loud enough for USC. Off the field, he’s an entirely different person: calm, friendly and approachable. He even describes himself as “dull” and “boring” at home. 

But when he’s on top of the ladder, it’s all business. 

“I try to embrace this Trojan spirit, this Trojan Family,” Bartner said. “And I get on the mic, and I have to admit, I’m like a man possessed … Hey, we’ve got to go out, we have a job to do. That’s to support this team and win some ballgames.”

Bartner’s band has done just that. He was there for The Comeback in 1974, the Bush Push in 2005 and the Darnold-orchestrated Rose Bowl victory in 2017 — his three favorite football moments from the 50 years. 

Now, Bartner will look to lead the band — and the football team — to one final victory before he departs, having spent half a century as the face of the Spirit of Troy.

“It hasn’t hit me yet that this is all over,” Bartner said.

After Bartner’s retirement, the band will go on. It won’t stop calling itself “The Greatest Marching Band in the History of the Universe.” It won’t stop sending the whole group to Notre Dame or the Weekender. It won’t stop playing “Tribute to Troy.” 

Though many things will remain, it just might not sound the same without Dr. Bartner leading the way.