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Ready to Hand Off the Reins

Times Staff Writer

In what has become a long-running soap opera surrounding USC’s famed mascot, Traveler, university administrators now must find a new white horse to charge across the field at football games.

Forty-two years after the late Richard Saukko established the tradition by riding into the Coliseum, his widow said the family will no longer supply horse and rider because of “a personality conflict.”

The split follows several years of disagreements and a legal dispute between Pat Saukko DeBernardi and administrators.

“They see it one way and I see it another way,” DeBernardi said.

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It is a measure of the Saukko family’s place in USC lore -- and the zeal of Trojan fans -- that the so-called “Travelergate” has spawned angry postings on Internet sites and threats of protest.

In an e-mail to USC President Steven B. Sample, a family friend claimed DeBernardi was driven to tears when her long-time relationship with university staff turned frosty.

DeBernardi and administrators also disagreed on whether the sideline had become too crowded to allow for safe riding.

“I’m not going to get into all this,” said Michael Jackson, the university’s vice president for student affairs. “The important thing is, Traveler has been a part of USC’s tradition for many years and we are working on continuing that.”

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The university said it had contacted several local trainers about arranging for a new horse by the start of next season.

The team has had various mascots dating to the 1920s, including a horse named Rockazar and George Tirebiter, a mutt that chased cars across campus. But by 1960, there was nothing.

The following year, administrators contacted Richard Saukko, who had a ranch north of Los Angeles.

Saukko provided a horse and for many years served as rider, initially donning a leather vest and helmet worn by Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur.”

“The number of athletes that we recruit who identify with the Trojan horse is amazing,” former USC coach Ted Tollner said in 1985. “The kid could be from Iowa and the only time he’s seen it is on television. They know the horse.”

In the USC media guide, which devotes a full page to Traveler, former Trojan player and assistant coach Nate Shaw said: “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.”

Saukko initially performed free of charge, DeBernardi said. But over the years, the family began asking for money to help maintain the horses.

Six years after her husband’s death in 1992, DeBernardi went a step further, applying for a trademark on the mascot’s name. University lawyers moved to block the attempt.

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The legal tussle was settled when she gave the name to USC in return for a contract extension and an undisclosed portion of the proceeds from the sale of Traveler merchandise.

But her friend Debbie McIntosh said that, by then, the long-time relationship had cooled.

While DeBernardi was reluctant to discuss the matter, McIntosh wrote to Sample that she witnessed her friend suffer “rude, bullying, disrespectful treatment” by university staff.

“She used to cry going down the freeway [to games] because she didn’t know what unexpected thing they were going to pull on her in the tunnel,” McIntosh said in an interview.

As president of the Santa Clarita Valley alumni club and a former university employee, McIntosh said: “I’m tired of seeing my friend upset for no good reason.”

Part of the friction arose from DeBernardi’s concern that USC was handing out too many sideline passes. “We couldn’t get through the crowd,” she said.

She said last season’s Notre Dame game was particularly congested and she took Traveler home at halftime.

A university spokesman denied that sideline crowds have grown appreciably. But the removal of a track that used to encircle the field has made for a “problematic” situation, Jackson said.

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“We have to work our way through that,” he said. “It’s somewhat difficult riding the horse through that area.”

There were other points of contention, including the controversial firing of a previous rider, Ardeshir Radpour, and DeBernardi’s claim that she had been promised a scholarship to attend USC.

Last season, she told administrators she wanted to retire some three years before her contract expired. Both sides claim they hoped her son, Chuck O’Donnell, would continue in her place.

O’Donnell has ridden the horse in recent seasons and his picture also appeared in last year’s media guide.

There are different explanations for why he won’t return.

Jackson said that after lengthy discussions with the university, O’Donnell decided to pursue other business interests.

The Saukko family said O’Donnell made his decision because USC hesitated in offering him a contract. “It dragged on to the point where he went and made other arrangements,” DeBernardi said.

A decades-old partnership quietly ended.

“There wasn’t a big deal or anybody yelling,” DeBernardi said. “This is just the way it is.”

On Web sites such as WeAreSC.com, fans posted worried and angry comments.

Some were under the impression USC was doing away with the mascot. In a news release, Jackson said that finding a new trainer and horse would be of “paramount importance.”

Despite her disappointment, DeBernardi said she still cared for the university and would be “a phone call away” if administrators needed her help.

She plans to attend football games with friends.

“I’ll enjoy watching from the stands,” she said. “Hopefully they will correct this thing and the next people will benefit.”


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