Thrown into the spotlight, Traveler bears a storied history

USC was at a standstill.

“Tirebiter is dead!” read the Daily Trojan’s front page headline on September 20, 1950. It was only three years after the beloved canine was crowned USC’s official mascot.

For eight days, students questioned George Tirebiter’s legacy. After a contentious 800-518 vote by the student body, a puppy named George Tirebiter II beat out Hector the Horse to succeed Tirebiter as USC’s mascot.

Though Hector did not emerge as the victor, his appearance in the final vote was a sign that the USC community was still desperately searching for the perfect embodiment of the Trojan spirit. It would take another 11 years for them to discover what they were looking for.

Today, the statue of a noble white horse stands directly across from Tommy Trojan in USC’s central plaza. Students and visitors attempt to mount the statue, throwing “Fight On” signs and snapping photos along the way. His name is Traveler, the Trojans’ pride and joy at every football home game. A university icon in his own right, Traveler symbolizes USC’s rising prowess in both academia and athletics.

This year marks a new chapter in the University’s history: the debut of Traveler IX. And as the Trojan Family looks forward to the future, this 56-year-old mascot remains one of the University’s most enduring traditions — one that continues to inspire generations of Trojans to fight on and conquer challenges that await them every day.

A twist of fate

Traveler was neither the first mascot nor the first horse to march through the field at the Coliseum. After the death of the original USC mascot Tirebiter in 1950, the student body struggled to find an appropriate canine successor to continue Tirebiter’s legacy.

It was fate that allowed student Eddie Tannenbaum to discover Traveler in 1961. Eleven years after USC’s decision to keep George Tirebiter, Tannenbaum knew that it was time for change.

“I wanted to find a mascot more symbolic of the University,” Tannenbaum said.

By sheer luck and coincidence, Tannenbaum and Bob Jani, then-director of special events, noticed Richard Saukko riding his white horse Traveler through the Rose Parade. It was then that Tannenbaum orchestrated the rise of a new mascot that he believed epitomized USC’s fighting spirit.

Traveler and Saukko were asked to perform at the 1961 football season opener against Georgia Tech. What was only supposed to be a one-time gig became a mainstay at USC, as spectators erupted in cheers after seeing him trotting out of the tunnel and braving the field. Opting to keep his original name, USC adopted Traveler as the University’s official mascot following the stunning debut.

The mascot’s name has been subject to rumors and speculation in years past. In an unsigned obituary for Saukko, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Traveler was named after the horse of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. More recently, the Black Student Assembly denounced Traveler as a symbol of white supremacy amid the violent attacks that occurred in Charlottesville, Va.

Pat Saukko DeBernardi, Richard Saukko’s wife, has tried to dispel the rumors behind the origin of Traveler’s name, claiming to the Times that the horse was already named before Saukko purchased it in 1958. In addition, the University has also reaffirmed its stance on Traveler following inquiries from the Los Angeles Times.

“USC’s mascot is a symbol of ancient Troy. Its rider, with costume and sword, is a symbol of a Trojan warrior,” a USC spokesman wrote in a statement. “The name Traveler, spelled with one ‘l,’ is a common name among horses … USC’s Traveler is and has always been a proud symbol of Troy. There is no truth to any other claims or rumors about its name.”

More than just a mascot

Trojans and fans anticipate this moment at every football home game: The grandeur of Traveler and his Trojan warrior galloping around the Coliseum to “Conquest” after every touchdown.

Traveler’s adoption into the Trojan family was universally accepted and welcomed, as his appearance became an expectation and demand at other University functions beyond home games. Until 2003, the Saukko family bred and trained the first six Travelers.

“The University package includes Traveler, and I think people look forward to seeing him when they’re at a game and seeing him a lot,” Tannenbaum said.

Eight other Travelers have succeeded Traveler I and also contributed to the mascot’s reputation as the centerpiece of of Trojan fanfare. To celebrate the equine mascot, then-USC president Steven Sample dedicated a Traveler statue at Hahn Plaza in 2010.  

Fifty-six years after Traveler’s conception, Tannenbaum looks back with nostalgia as he reminisces  about Traveler’s transformation throughout the course of both his life and USC’s history. He chuckles when he reflects on his time as Traveler’s keeper. He smiles when he sees students snapping photos with the Traveler statue. And he cheers from his seat when Traveler makes his way around the football field, content with his contribution to something much larger than himself: the Trojan family.

“I’m [really] proud of my legacy,” Tannenbaum said. “I’m very lucky to be a part of something on the University campus. And as minor as it sounds, I think [Traveler is] the best mascot that any university has.”

The line of succession

It’s the night before an 11 a.m. home game.

Traveler and his rider Hector Aguilar have just finished riding through the hills for several hours. His muscles are warmed up, and he spends the night at a stable in Burbank, Calif. At 4 a.m., Traveler gets bathed and groomed for the big day. By 6 a.m., he and his owner Joanne Asman arrive at Gate 11 at the Coliseum, where is he kept until his big appearance prior to kickoff.

In 2003, Joanne Asman succeeded the Saukko family as Traveler’s primary breeder. Asman has worked with USC for the past 14 years, playing an integral role in training her Travelers to become the darling Andalusian horses that embody USC’s fighting spirit. And it was through her that Traveler VII was selected.

Since his debut, the seventh mascot has been adored for his majestic appearance, love of attention and ability to work through chaotic environments. But at age 26, he is facing retirement as Traveler IX — Traveler VIII never made it to the Coliseum — makes his way to the pedestal this fall to continue the Traveler legacy.

“He’s not happy giving up his position. He loves being Traveler, from the first running he did on the field, he went, ‘Ooh, this is nice, I like it,’” Asman said of Traveler VII. “He gets a little jealous every now and then, so we’re not going to make him stop until he tells us he’s ready to stop totally.”

For the past two years, Asman and Aguilar have been preparing Traveler IX for his big introduction. Painting USC end zones on red carpet, having children cheer with pom-poms and appearing at the Spirit of Troy’s band camp have all been part of the young horse’s training.

“What we look for [in the transition] from Traveler VII to Traveler IX is making sure he has the right mindset to do the job because not every horse can do it,” Aguilar said. “Not every horse can tolerate all that commotion and noise … so it takes a very special horse.”

The transition between the two horses has shown that there are some personality differences between the two equine companions. And though character contrast may affect how the horses interact with crowds, one thing remains the same: They will both be loved and adored by USC fans.

“Traveler IX is a little more lovable, in that he wants be up against you [and] wants to be petted all the time whereas [Traveler VII] likes it, but he’s just as happy being by himself,” Asman said.

For both Asman and Aguilar, preparing a horse to continue Traveler’s legacy has not been an easy task.  But it’s been one of the most rewarding accomplishments of their lives, allowing them to become members of the Trojan Family along the way.

“It’s a great thrill — a great privilege to ride a horse not only in the Coliseum, but also as Tommy Trojan,” Aguilar said about his legacy as the seventh Trojan warrior. “Riding Traveler for all the history it has and all its traditions, it’s really a great honor.”

Asman realized she was a part of the Trojan family when a benefactor flew Traveler out to Florida for the 2005 Orange Bowl to surprise alumni and students when the Trojans played against Oklahoma.

“What I’ve noticed more than anything else working with USC versus any other colleges is that they’re family,” Asman said. “When you are a part of USC, you are always a part of USC.”

At USC, traditions remain a fundamental part of the University’s culture. And while Traveler IX may be new, he soon will carry the history and tradition that have inspired Trojans for 56 years.

See you on the field, Traveler IX.


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