Few people live and breathe football the way that Nick Pappas, former USC football player, coach and associate athletic director, did. Pappas, who passed away on Friday at the age of 99, left behind a long legacy of commitment to both the school and the sport.
Nicknamed “Mr. Trojan” for his unwavering passion for USC, Pappas embodied the qualities of a leader and a team player during his 59 years with the University, according to Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone.
“Nobody loved USC more or did more for the University and its athletic program, particularly its football team, than Nick,” Tessalone said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “His length of service to USC was amazing.”
Pappas was born in Seattle in 1916, and started his football career as a tailback for the Trojans in 1935, where for three years, he led the team in rushing under coach Howard Jones. After graduating from the University, he briefly played for the Hollywood Bears before returning to USC in 1939 to coach the freshman team.
Pappas’s dedication extended off the field and into his service overseas as a member of the Navy during World War II. During the Battle of Okinawa, he distinguished himself by earning a Silver Star for heroism in battle. In 1945, he received a Purple Heart after his destroyer, the USS Drexler, fell under attack by Japanese kamikaze pilots and sank into the Pacific. Pappas, who was blown into the water, swam into the burning wreckage of the ship to rescue two fellow sailors.
After the end of the war, Pappas spent several years as a pro football scout before returning to the University to scout for the Trojans. He was named an assistant coach under Jess Hill in 1953, a position that helped him lead the Trojans to the Rose Bowl in 1955.
Though Pappas worked to support the University while he was coaching there, he also took steps to ensure that its athletic programs would exist long after his tenure there was over. When he established the Trojan Club athletic booster organization in the late 1950s, it was unique among universities.
“He was an innovator,” Tessalone said. “He was well ahead of his time in establishing the Trojan Club, which became a model athletic fundraising program for universities throughout the nation.”
The Trojan Club survives today as the USC Trojan Boosters, a group dedicated to athletic fundraising that is focused on building relationships between the University and its donors. Though Pappas retired in 1981, he continued his work with the Trojan Club, raising endowment funds for the University until 2004. As a result, he was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997. Upon his retirement, he was the longest tenured employee at USC, for which he received USC’s Alumni Service Award.
The story of Pappas’s life crosses local, state and national borders, but it always comes back to football. In 1940, Pappas made his film debut as a stunt double for Pat O’Brien in the biopic Knute Rockne, All American, which memorialized the story of Notre Dame’s legendary coach and also featured Ronald Reagan in a starring role. Though brief, Pappas’s contribution was inspired by what he loved best: playing football.
Pappas is survived by his daughters, Lisa Widman and Mona Pappas, five grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. His wife of 66 years, Deedy, passed away in 2006, followed by his daughter Rene Arrobio in 2009. He will be missed by the USC community, which, according to Tessalone, would not be the same without the passion and effort that Pappas brought to the University.
“Everything that Nick did, he did it with USC’s best interest in mind,” Tessalone said. “There is only one Nick Pappas, and he will be deeply missed by everyone in the Trojan Family.”