SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- John Papadakis is topless.
|John Papadakis has wined and dined guys like John Robinson for a long time now. (Provided to CBSSports.com)|
Though "opening" isn't exactly right either. The only reason three early arriving reporters have caught Papadakis changing into his owner/operator/restaurateur formal duds is that the front door to Papadakis Taverna is unlocked.
No matter. C'mon in. John Papadakis is anything but a private man. And by the end of the evening, he will be topless again and maybe, just maybe, USC will have locked up another recruit.
"We tell recruits we're going to a nice, quiet, homey place," USC coach Pete Carroll said of one of the secrets to his success. "We're going to talk about your future and stuff like that. The next thing they know, John's unbuttoning his shirt and dancing in front of everybody."
And that's a routine night for the 54-year-old former USC linebacker. The place isn't a restaurant; it's a sit-com set complete with its own unique set of characters.
There's an 80-something violinist who serenades diners for tips. Anthony D'Oria claims to have played with Sinatra. He takes requests. Go ahead, name a college fight song. D'Oria will play it ... on the violin.
A belly dancer tantalizingly dances for her own tips. Offering a hip here and a waistband there, until a customer can concentrate enough to stuff a bill into her, um, coffer.
Dishes are broken. Lamb is served. Opas are yelled. Wine is consumed.
"We're always worried that the parents are going to be shocked," Carroll said.
Put it this way. Your basic McDonald's drive-thru is less wholesome. After baklava, Greek pasta (Carroll's favorite) and another clink of glasses, you'd be ready to commit too.
"I tell 'em that Carroll is the rock upon which we're going to build this program," Papadakis said.
"The message is this: Our colors stand for something. The cardinal is our blood, we're all equal, we're all real inside, we're all the same. The Spartan army wore cardinal colors so when they were stabbed, the enemy wouldn't see the blood.
"The gold is what every man will fight for and die for. Gold makes a man rich. Can you tell me what other school's colors stand for?"
"He's a great speechmaker," said Steve Morton, a good friend from Rancho Mirage. "By the end of the evening, he gets these kids to stand up and say, 'I want to be a Trojan.'"
Who knew that this modest establishment at 301 West Sixth Street in a modest port town south of Los Angeles would become one of the keys to Carroll's recruiting?
Dinners at Papadakis' on recruiting weekends are usually reserved for top-notch prospects. Whether they come from Southern California or across the USA, they can't be prepared for the bum-rush recruiting pitch about to hit them between the eyes.
"The guy is intense," Matt Leinart said. "He is the true definition of a USC Trojan."
And it's all completely on the up and up with the NCAA. Being a former player, Papadakis' influence is technically no different than that of Ronnie Lott or Marcus Allen chatting up a recruit.
Except Papadakis has enough personality to light up this once ribald town. He is a community activist. Trojan for life. Devoted father. Not that you could forget. The walls are plastered with the exploits of his sons Taso and Petros, also former Trojans. John can be seen on the sideline of most home games, almost blending in as an assistant coach.
Which he sort of is.
When Carroll arrived in 2000, he sought out Papadakis for advice. Before long, recruits began to frequent the Taverna. Before the 2003 season, Carroll invited Papadakis and Sam Cunningham to address the team. The pair regaled the Trojans with stories of USC's legendary victory at Alabama in 1970.
Cunningham scored two touchdowns in a 42-21 victory, helping change minds about segregation (at least in college football) in the South. In their second trip to the state since then, USC won 23-0, starting its run of consecutive national championships.
"He's not a control freak," Papadakis says of Carroll. "A control freak would only want his profile to be recognized. When they bring recruits, he's really in the background."
Papadakis can't resist telling his favorite "recruiting" story. Jeff Byers visited the restaurant one night with his family. Neither knew the other's significance to USC -- Byers as a top national recruit, Papadakis as a hopeless Trojan honk.
So John sees this hulking kid and, for no reason, punches him in the arm.
"Player to player," he says.
"Later that night he comes into my office. He tells me he's a big recruit. I had no idea who he was, how good he was. I call (former USC assistant Ed Orgeron) and I tell him I've got this Byers kid in my office.
I'm saying things like, 'Mediocre, huh? Borderline? Orgeron is on the other end of the line going crazy.
"I hang up and Byers says, '(USC) told me I was their No. 1 recruit.'"
He was, which gave Papadakis the opening he needed to make his pitch.
"You're a great kid. I love your parents. If you were a woman, all my problems would be over. Wherever you go, I'm going to follow you and root for you. But if Pete Carroll is going to offer you a scholarship ... if you turn it down, I'm going to feel sorry for you because you're such a dumb----."
You know the end of this story. Yeah, Byers fell for the shtick. He also became a Trojan and started four games as a freshman in 2004 before being redshirted this year because of an injury.
Thereby not becoming a dumb----.