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Loyalties Sidelined as USC Boots Boosters From Seats : Fund-raising: Their donations are vital to the school. But their prime spots may go to those who give more.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Edwin Lohn of Rolling Hills personifies the Trojan super-fan.

His van has the license plate “LOVE SC.” He likes to blow his bugle to lead cheers at the Coliseum. He has even gone on the field at Notre Dame Stadium to toot his horn.

He has attended USC football games for almost 60 years, first with his father, and later as a season ticket-holder for more than 40 years. He has sat in the same section all that time, enjoying the great seasons and burying his head in the bad ones.

For “Els” Lohn, USC football has been a lifelong passion.

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But now, the passion is waning and the anger is boiling because Lohn, and other older members of the Cardinal and Gold--USC’s largest support group--are being pushed from their longtime seats in favor of those who contribute more money.

Their loyalties have been threatened because of a priority seating policy that was announced this year to drum up money.

“I’m 69 years old,” said Lohn, owner of an automotive accessory company. “They can’t even wait until I’m gone.”

Ron Orr, an assistant athletic director at USC, says there have not been that many complaints about the situation. However, Lohn and his friends say they have been told by insiders at USC that the phones have not stopped ringing.

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The school says it did not anticipate many problems because the basic policy hasn’t changed since the 1960s. But although the policy has not changed, the seating arrangement has.

The school wants to give the best seats to members of the Presidential Associates and the Scholarship Club. The presidential club costs $100,000 over five years and the Scholarship Club costs $18,000 a year.

Controversy over revised seating policies is not unusual in collegiate athletics. UCLA faced the wrath of its fevered basketball fans when it implemented a new policy at Pauley Pavilion three years ago.

With increasing costs of higher education, athletic departments across the country are continually searching for creative ways to fund their efforts. One of a school’s prime commodities is tickets, particularly for football or men’s basketball games.

A quality seat at the Coliseum, Pauley Pavilion or even the new Pyramid at Long Beach State costs more than face value. Fans must join booster groups to gain access to those seats, and joining isn’t free.

“The revenue generation is too important,” said Bill Shumard, Long Beach State assistant athletic director. “Anyone who isn’t doing it is in the Dark Ages.”

Most of the major athletic programs have a seating policy, but when changing it, there always is the danger of alienating old-timers.

“We don’t want to do that,” said USC’s Orr. He said the recent publication of priority seating was nothing more than letting the school’s supporters know where they stand.

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“We’ve had this policy for (about) 10 years,” he said. “There was so much ambiguity. Now we have something to point to.”

Lohn, a USC graduate, said he did not mind becoming a lifetime member of the Cardinal and Gold in 1981, paying $10,000 for the privilege. He did not mind giving up half his eight season tickets in 1991 when USC no longer allowed an individual to keep more than four. And he didn’t mind when his wife, Dorothy, had to join the Women of Troy for $1,000 to keep the remaining four.

But changing his seating location?

That he minds.

“I just have had enough, been pressured enough and they have been obnoxious enough that I’d like to stop them in their tracks,” said Lohn, who took out an advertisement in last week’s L.A. Daily Journal, a legal publication, asking USC supporters to join him in fighting the policy changes.

Although he did not sign a contract assuring specific seats when joining as a lifetime Cardinal and Gold member, it was implied, Lohn said.

By paying a one-time fee, Lohn thought he would keep his prime season tickets near the 45-yard line until he died. Now, he expects to lose them unless he contributes more to the university. USC will not say where the new seats will be, but according to a seating chart provided by the school, some people could move from the 50-yard-line to the 20-yard-line.

Lohn is not alone in his outrage. Steve Fisk, an international financier from Newport Beach, has supported athletics since graduating from USC in 1952. The former Trojan baseball player joined the Cardinal and Gold at its inception in 1961 and has annually paid dues to keep his seats.

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“It’s like, what you did for me a long time ago doesn’t mean a darn thing,” Fisk said. “I think there is a policy of fairness and I don’t think there is anything fair about this.”

Lohn said one Trojan administrator told him he got off cheaply when becoming a lifetime member for $10,000. Today, lifetime members pay $20,000, payable over three years.

“When they needed our money and we gave it to them, they gladly took it,” said Woodrow W. Meier of Downey, who became a lifetime member in the early ‘80s. “I just feel they are twisting our arms and it is in the wrong way.”

Longtime boosters will get credit for past support in a new points system that begins this fall, but current contributors stand to fare better.

Because the arrangement has not been detailed, USC officials could not say exactly who would be affected or by how much. But Orr said the changes will not be drastic.

The Cardinal and Gold members, 1,900 strong, pay an annual fee of $1,750 unless they have a lifetime membership or are under 35. They have access to the next-best seats. A diagram detailing the new arrangement shows that Lohn’s seats are in an area now assigned to the upper-level support groups.

The school is within its rights to change its seating policy, but some officials understand the touchy situation with the lifetime members.

“There is a moral obligation if you ask somebody to step up to the plate at a critical time, and they come through for you, (you have) to honor their lifetime commitment and you have to be very careful how those people are approached again,” said one Southland sports executive who asked not be identified.

But there are only so many resources available to a university, none better than alumni and boosters.

“If they really laid it out to us, most people would . . . help out,” said Robert Norcross, a Harbor City physician who has held season tickets for almost 30 years.

Others are more understanding. Hank Darnell of Newport Beach has held the same season tickets since 1968, when he graduated from USC, but is not fazed by the new seating arrangement.

He accepts the laws of sports economics.

“I’d like to have my tickets on the 50-yard line but the reality is they aren’t and they are never going to be unless I contribute a lot of money to the university--even if I lived to be 400 years old,” Darnell said.


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