Nick Pappas, known as “Mr. Trojan” for his nearly six-decade association with USC’s football team, died Friday in Pasadena of natural causes. He was 99.
The death of Pappas, who started out in 1935 as a player on the team and later became a coach, administrator and founder of the Trojan Club booster group, was announced by the university. His passing was marked at the USC-Utah game Saturday by a moment of silence at the Coliseum, followed by an ovation.
“He was called Mr. Trojan for a reason,” said USC athletic department spokesman Tim Tessalone on Saturday. “He lived and died USC, especially USC football.”
Pappas even lived with his family in a house only about a punt away from the team’s practice field during the time he was a coach in the mid-1950s. An upstairs window afforded a clear view of the field, a fact that probably did not go unnoticed by an arch-rival team.
“One season, just before the SC-Notre Dame game, a man approached my mother-in-law, who owns the house, and asked to rent the upstairs room for a week,” Pappas said in a 1954 Times interview. “Fortunately, it was already rented to three Trojan gridders!”
That didn’t keep Pappas from playing for Notre Dame — but only in the movies. In the classic 1940 football film “Knute Rockne All American” (the one in which Ronald Reagan says, “Win one for the Gipper”), Pappas was the stunt double for actor Pat O’Brien, who played the title character.
Pappas was born Jan. 26, 1916, and grew up in the Seattle area.
He played tailback for USC from 1935 to 1937 under legendary coach Howard Jones. Pappas was a solid performer, leading the team in rushing in 1935, if not one of the top stars.
“Although he never quite made the list of all-time Trojans on the playing field, he never left USC, fighting on ever since,” wrote Times columnist John Hall in 1969.
That was almost true — he played for the pro team the Hollywood Bears in 1938 and 1939, and spent a few seasons scouting for pro teams. He also served in the Navy during World War II, earning Purple Heart and Silver Star medals.
In 1939 and 1940 he was at USC to coach the freshman teams. He also scouted for USC for a couple of seasons and in 1953 became an assistant coach under Jess Hill.
He is perhaps best known for creating the Trojan Club to raise funds for the team. Ron Orr, a USC senior associate athletic director for development, said Pappas wasn’t focused on just getting donations for one program or another. He worked at creating a bond between the school and contributors.
“The greatest thing I learned form Nick is that this is not a transactional gift,” Orr said, “it’s a relationship.”
Pappas retired from working full time in 1981, but remained active in raising endowment funds until 2004.
In 1997 he was inducted into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame.
Pappas is survived by daughters Lisa Widman and Mona Pappas; five grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. His wife of 66 years, Deedy, died in 2006.
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.