Institutional rivalries and sporting traditions are a huge part of the college experience, and — checking both of these boxes with one giant mark — nothing is quite so spectacular as a well-executed card stunt!
Whether based around sabotage or on computer-aided design, these works of art turn sports fans into a living display of college spirit in stadiums around America — and have done for over a century. Check out the ten most spectacular, devious and all-round awesome college card stunts ever!
10. The Rose Bowl Hoax
No list of college card stunts would be complete without the tale of the great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961. On the field, the Minnesota Golden Gophers faced off against the Washington Huskies. At halftime, the Huskies fans in the stands proudly held up their cards in order to cheer on their team. Unfortunately for them, a group of Caltech students, now known as the “Fiendish Fourteen,” had secretly switched all 2,232 of the instruction sheets for the Huskies fans with their own versions. When the card stunt was performed, the first 11 images were as expected, but the twelfth displayed a Caltech beaver rather than the expected husky, and the thirteenth mischievously messed up the display of the word “Washington.” Image fourteen, however, was the real kicker: in bold block letters, “CALTECH” was displayed to the field, and to 30 million viewers across the country.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes
The fans of the Iowa Hawkeyes might not yet be listed amongst the great legends of card stunt history, but that might soon change, as they sure have been putting on some nice displays lately.
The black and gold stripes turning to red white and blue that was displayed across Kinnick Stadium during the Hawkeyes’ game against Northwestern in October 2011 deserves a serious level of respect for the organization and effort it must have needed. 73,000 cards! Imagine being confronted with a card stunt of this magnitude!
Originally formed using red and white capes, the Stanford “Block S” was generally reserved for big ticket games where college pride was at its peak; Berkeley, USC and UCLA were among the few teams deemed worthy of seeing Stanford’s card stunts in action.
Particularly back in its card stunt heyday, Stanford’s displays must have been a sight worth seeing, with up to 2,000 fans manipulating six cards each to perform as many as 25 different stunts a game. With such a level of complexity, it’s no wonder Stanford’s fans were among the very first to use computers to aid in the preparation of their stunts, back in 1962.
7. California Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley holds the enviable distinction of being the first college to incorporate card stunts into its halftime show, way back in 1910. One of 1910 stunts from the Cal-Stanford game is pictured; the Berkeley students created a picture of a large axe — the Stanford Axe, no less — to signal their opponents’ fate (Stanford lost 25-6).
Another first, the first flip stunt, took place in 1920, when the magic of coordinated card flipping made a gold “C” on a blue background grow bigger. Such antics are still going strong in Berkeley, with a few thousand people participating in card stunts and a dedicated organizing committee constantly brainstorming new ideas.
6. University of Southern California (Westwood Sucks)
The fierce competition between the University of Southern California (USC) and its neighbor, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is well known, with various pranks (not least the stealing of the Victory Bell!) a hallmark of their sporting match-ups. Perhaps the most famous incident occurred live on television when ABC was broadcasting the 1971 rivalry game between the Trojan Knights and the Bruins. Hilariously, during a well-organized stunt, the cards were meant to spell a rather long message: “Why do people go to UCLA? Westwood SUCKS…them in.” However, only the “Westwood SUCKS” part was shown on TV, allowing the true feelings of the more mischievously minded to shine through.
When UCLA do card stunts, they really pull out all the stops. Having performed their first stunt in 1925, they might not have as long a history as some other colleges, but they make up for it with a whole new level of effort. With achievements ranging from story-telling using animation through a sequence of panels (1932) to being the first to use lights (when 1,000 students created a hula girl dancing to music in 1935) UCLA is a worthy addition to any card stunts hall of fame. The pictured image — the blue and gold UCLA logo — appeared as if signed by a giant invisible hand. Magical.
4. Ohio State
A relative latecomer to the card stunt game, Ohio State didn’t start rallying fans with such sequences until 1938. All in all, members of “Block O” have a total of five cards — 10 colors altogether — yet with these simple implements, they have a quiver full of different routines. When not displaying the image of the moment, they keep the university mascot, “Brutus the Buckeye,” prominently on show. The seating area of Block O, at the closed end of Ohio State’s horseshoe stadium, has only 2,083 seats, and with over 2,500 members in the student organization, the tickets sell out within hours.
3. University of Illinois
In 1925, fifteen years after the “Block I” pep squad had been inaugurated, its members performed their first card stunt. While they were out of action for a few years during the years spanning World War II, they came back with a vengeance in 1945, reaching a total of 1,100 participants in 1947. Perhaps anticipating stereo, they developed a mirrored section across the stands, earning them a visit from 20th Century Fox in 1954, with the studio eager to feature them in a movie. They are still going strong today, with around 1,000 students to be found in the North End Zone of Memorial Stadium.
2. 2004 Harvard–Yale Prank
Ivy League rivalry isn’t always as highbrow as one might think. The annual Harvard-Yale football game took an unexpected turn in 2004 when a group of 22 Yale students put aside the distaste they must have felt at dressing up in disguise as the “Harvard Pep Squad” to hand out cards to a large section of opposing fans in the stadium. The Harvard fans, mostly alumni, expected to display their college pride with the words “GO HARVARD” — and were told they’d be doing as much by the pranksters — but they actually unknowingly proclaimed “WE SUCK.” Although its players saw the display, Harvard had the last laugh, winning the game 35-3 on the day. Some might say, however, that the moral victory of the prank will stay sweeter for longer.
1. 2004 Rose Bowl: USC vs. University of Michigan
While many recent card stunts of note have often been at the more prankish end of the spectrum, hats have to go off to those responsible for the more straight-up spectacle that was created at the 2004 Rose Bowl.
The USC Trojans defeated the Michigan Wolverines, but arguably the real stars of the event were the massed spectators who participated in what must surely be one of the most beautiful card stunts of all time — including a dazzling patriotic display.