If you’ve ever taken the cardboard tube from the inside of a roll of gift wrap and played Robin Hood with your little brother or cousin who wielded a curtain rod while you both exchanged spirited repartee, you understand the inherent joy of fencing.
At USC, there happens to be a rich history of such swashbuckling joie de vivre. A prominent symbol of it is on display in the courtyard of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. There, a bronze statue of Douglas Fairbanks stands proudly, a trusty sword in his right hand. It was Fairbanks who first cooked up the idea of a film school during fencing matches with Rufus B. von KleinSmid, the university’s president at the time.
That was in 1929. Cut to present day. Scott Frank is now USC’s fencing icon – literally. The folks who created the icons for each sport at the Beijing Olympics patterned the one for fencing after a photo of the current USC coach.
Frank has been coaching the USC fencing team, which is a club sport, since roughly 1998. It’s easier to poke Frank in the heart with an epee than it is to pin down precisely when he took over because it was a gradual ascent.
He took up fencing as an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta in 1989. He continued while a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, then kept it up while pursuing his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at USC.
“We had coaches at the time, but as I recall, there was some conflict, and they stopped coming,” Frank said of his initial experience at USC. “At that point, I was the president of the club because I had been fencing the longest.
“I inherited running the practices, and then eventually I inherited being the coach.”
By day, Frank is the mild-mannered senior manager of education at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park. By other days, nights, weekends, holidays and whenever he can, he serves as the dashing part-time mentor to a largely inexperienced group of enthusiasts who come to learn the finer points of jabbing someone with sharp metal.
Whereas Lane Kiffin and his football coaching staff scour the nation in search of elite recruits, Frank must suffice mostly with the curious, the intrigued and the Zorro-obsessed who straggle in wide-eyed to the first open practice of the year. Actually, Frank said, the crop is more abundant than it used to be.
“Usually now we get about 80 kids to that first practice,” he said. “The vast majority have never picked up a sword, ever. Or it’s something like, ‘We had that in gym class once when I was in junior high,’ but most think it’s cool, something they’ve seen in movies.
“They’ve seen something somewhere that makes them think swords are fun. And, of course, swords are fun.”
Mike Muhlmeyer was one of those students. As an undergraduate at USC 10 years ago, he came out for the team. He now serves as Frank’s assistant coach.
“I think Scott makes fencing very accessible to people,” Muhlmeyer explained. “I came in knowing nothing and he added humor to the process, and that helps people stay involved.”
Frank teaches, but leaves the daily running of the club to his student fencers, and that includes handling the modest budget given out by the university’s Recreational Club Council and raising additional funds. The team competes against a mixture of club and NCAA teams and is a member of a loose-knit league of other club teams in the area that includes UCLA, the University of California, San Diego and the University of California, Irvine. USC usually excels in the Linkmeyer Invitational, the area’s major fencing event on the calendar.
But the success of the club still depends on the neophyte who shows up with visions of adventure, romance and swordfights gleaned from old celluloid. Fairbanks would be proud.
“On the first day, I tell them, ‘How many of you have seen The Princess Bride?’ ” Frank said. “If they haven’t, I say, ‘Then leave, go see it and then come back!’ ”