Greenbacks and the gridiron at USC, a century ago

The latest USC football scandal may have local fans yearning for an era when college sports were pristine. But it’s not so easy determining just when (or if) that era existed.

Even before the advent of the Model T, USC was accused of paying a “temporary student” to perform on the gridiron.

The controversy cost the school a spot in the Southland’s most anticipated local game of that year, 1903.

The drama began to unfold when Pomona College charged that USC’s star halfback had dropped out of school after the last 1902 game, rather than complete the semester, making him a “temporary student.”

Pomona’s announcement struck some as the response of a poor loser. After all, the USC halfback in question, Elwin Caley, had run back a kickoff 107 yards for a touchdown in 1902, sparking the Methodists (as USC was known) to a 16-5 victory over the “Congregational boys” (Pomona).

But Pomona insisted that ethical lapses had been ignored by those “in control of athletics” at USC.

The phrase was remarkably similar to the NCAA’s recent finding of a lack of “institutional control” on the part of the Cardinal and Gold.

USC, proving that lawyers were busy even back then, responded that “temporary student” Caley had played before the two schools signed a new three-year agreement. So no ethical violations of that pact had been made.

“Pomona wants to rule out one of our best players on account of something that occurred some time in the past and about which I know nothing,” said USC President G.F. Bovard. “If this were allowed, how far could we go back? Where would we stop — in one year or five years, or when?”

Besides, Bovard pointed out, Caley had returned to school. (Football season was approaching.)

Nevertheless, Pomona canceled its 1903 game against USC, considered “easily the premier event … in college sport in this city,” in the words of The Times.

Football fans were stunned. After all, as everyone knew, USC and Pomona were part of the Big Four of the gridiron sport in Southern California, along with Occidental and St. Vincent’s, now Loyola Marymount. (No offense, Bruin followers; there was no UCLA then.)

Three months after Pomona’s accusation, a new charge came to light: improper benefits given to USC players (another echo of the latest Trojan scandal involving stars Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo).

The revelation surfaced at a meeting of the USC student body to examine the school budget.

The session began with the customary singing of the song “We’re a Jolly Band of College Boys.” Then team manager J.F. Seymour was grilled about a less jolly issue: his large expenditure of nearly $1,000 on the team the previous year even though the team had no regular coach. The suspicion was he had spent some of that on himself.

Seymour indignantly responded that not only had he pocketed no money, he had actually been forced to shell out $25 of his own funds. He produced a canceled $25 check he had written, one that the university would not reimburse him for.

The check (about $600 in today’s money) was to team captain Don Caley. “In order to get him to play at all I was compelled to promise to pay him for his services,” Seymour said.

Don Caley was the brother of Elwin Caley, the “temporary student.”

Seymour’s speaking time was severely curtailed, and he was warned not to “indulge in personalities.”

But The Times said there were reports that both Caleys had received payments.

Hearing that his brother was being paid off, Elwin Caley had “refused to play unless one-half of the spoils went to him,” The Times said.

Crushed by “the stigma of professionalism,” students “swarmed” the halls of USC after Seymour’s revelation, the paper said. “The classrooms were practically deserted, and the whole student body seemed demoralized.”

There was no NCAA to penalize schools back then, but USC finally launched into some self-policing.

The track team dismissed a miler, a hammer thrower and a high jumper for academic reasons, forcing cancellation of a track meet with the Occidental College Presbyterians (as they were called).

The Caleys never played another down of football at USC. Seymour was replaced as team manager.

And a full-time faculty member was brought in to coach the football team. He was professor Harvey Holmes, who was no slouch in academics, having taught algebra.

Interestingly enough, Holmes had resurrected the image of a Utah school that had been hit with scandal, The Times said.

Pomona, satisfied with the reforms, resumed playing USC in 1905 after a two-year boycott. The two teams’ series would continue until 1925, the year Pomona lost to the Trojans, 80-0.

By then, USC had become a football juggernaut.

But no one sang “We’re a Jolly Band of College Boys” anymore.