Friday, February 24, 2012

The Man Who Gave the Trojians Their Name

It was just one word, one brief thought from a dreamy kid about an upstart university, seven taps on a rattling typewriter, one word stuck deep in the first sentence of a thick first paragraph.

But for both the school and the sports columnist, it was one word that changed their worlds.

His name was Owen R. Bird, he was 25, and he had been with the Los Angeles Times barely five months when one of his influential readers made an unusual request. He was asked by Warren Bovard, USC's athletic director, to end the circus of monikers given the school's athletic teams — Methodists, Wesleyans and Cards — and find one powerful nickname that would stick.

One hundred years ago, Feb. 24, 1912, in a track preview in this newspaper, Bird began referring to USC as the "Trojans."

It was one word that eventually defined an institution, created a culture and fostered an attitude that has endured for a century.

It was also one word that cursed the man who concocted it.

Since being named the Trojans, USC has won 116 national titles and 363 individual NCAA titles while using athletics to help build the school into a institution of worldwide influence with endowments in the billions.

After naming the Trojans, Bird spent the rest of his life wildly and vainly trying to replicate the stature of that achievement while barely being remembered for it.

He fought in one skirmish and one war, married three women, worked at least a dozen jobs, lived in at least a dozen homes and continually sought greater thrills, until one day making the only memory more compelling than his Trojans creation.

On a winter evening in 1929, Bird returned to his Silver Lake home to find his wife, Laura, conversing with his best friend, Percival Watson. Bird pulled out a revolver and killed Watson with shots through his face, arm and abdomen.

Bird was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison with a farewell that would serve as a template for the rest of his life. In its stories on the incident, the same Los Angeles Times that decorated its pages with nearly 800 of his bylined pieces during Bird's three years as sports editor and columnist never once mentioned that he had worked there.

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