Acing the pranks

Times Staff Writer

Airborne manure. Painted crickets. Kidnapped statues. And the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961.

In the annals of college mischief, Golden State students have perpetrated some memorable pranks over the years.

California has a venerable history of campus practical jokes, said Neil Steinberg, author of “If at All Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks.”


The high jinks date to at least 1899, when UC Berkeley students stole Stanford’s ceremonial ax after a baseball game, touching off a century of dueling shenanigans. In addition to back-and-forth ax-nappings, the capers include tweaking Palo Alto freeway signs to say “Stanfurd,” disrupting Cal’s halftime marching band with tiny motorized cars and unleashing mice in each other’s campus libraries, according to news reports.

In 1982, after Berkeley’s football team beat Stanford with a wild last-second kickoff return that involved five laterals, Stanford retaliated by replacing Cal’s student newspaper with an impostor edition that claimed NCAA officials had overturned the touchdown and made Stanford the winner.

At another game, Cal fans hacked into the stadium sound system and announced: “Penalty, excessive arrogance; Stanford sucks!”

Southern California has a similar prank rivalry. It began in 1941 with USC’s theft of a 295-pound victory bell from cross-town rival UCLA. The subsequent battle of stunts includes planting 20,000 gold-and-cardinal-painted crickets in UCLA’s library, kidnapping USC fans and chaining them to fire hydrants -- and numerous sneak assaults on statues of Tommy Trojan and UCLA’s Bruin Bear.

One year, blowtorch-wielding Bruin conspirators cut off Tommy Trojan’s sword and replaced it in a most uncomfortable location.

On another occasion, in 1958, UCLA pranksters rented a helicopter and tried to dump manure on Tommy.

But the escapade backfired when the helicopter’s rotors sucked some of the aromatic gunk back onto the passengers.

Church-affiliated colleges and commuter campuses also pull their share of pranks.

At Concordia University Irvine, a Lutheran school, dorm residents recently lined a quad with sandbags, then filled the area with water and goldfish.

At Cal State Fullerton, science professors have seen their offices bricked up, filled with beach sand or decorated with a life-size plaster dinosaur head that spewed gas flames from its mouth. Chemistry professor Richard Deming once opened his office door and found all the furniture -- including a sofa and lighted Christmas tree -- hanging upside down from the ceiling.

Such elaborate stunts are rare today, thanks in part to political correctness, post-9/11 anxiety and fear of lawsuits, school officials say.

“The golden age of college pranks was the 1950s,” said author Steinberg, who traces the phenomenon back to colonial times.

Today, one of the final frontiers of prankdom is Caltech, whose mischief curriculum vitae includes commandeering a Rose Bowl scoreboard and changing the UCLA-Illinois score to read, “Caltech 38, MIT 9.”

The MIT snub in 1984 was part of a long-running battle of stunt-upmanship between the brainiac campuses. In the latest volley, MIT this year swiped Caltech’s cannon and hauled it to Massachusetts.

Caltech is also famous for its Ditch Day tradition, in which underclassmen try to outwit elaborate dorm-room locks designed by seniors. One year, students not only picked a tricky lock but took apart the senior’s parked car, then reassembled it in his room and reportedly left the engine running.

In 1991, when then-President George H.W. Bush delivered a commencement speech at the school, he joked that he might be late to his next meeting because “some of Caltech’s finest reassembled Air Force One in the lobby of my hotel.”

But the school’s ultimate achievement, hailed as the best collegiate stunt in history, is the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961.

Posing as high school newspaper reporters, Caltech pranksters duped cheerleaders from the University of Washington into revealing the inner workings of their carefully choreographed halftime flip-card show, in which stadium spectators held up colored cards to form giant words and pictures.

The Caltech students then stole and replaced Washington’s flip-card instruction sheets with their own.

On game day in Pasadena, the plan unfolded before a national television audience. To avoid creating suspicion, the pranksters left intact the first 11 images of Washington’s flip-card show. But they doctored the 12th image, a giant Husky mascot, into a Caltech beaver. Next, they reversed the word “Huskies” to spell “Seiksuh.”

The last image was supposed to say “Washington.” Instead, it flashed a giant “Caltech.”

On the field, Washington’s band stopped playing and the crowd went silent, according to Then laughter erupted and the band stormed out.