The Loud Mouth

Few know L.A. sports like talk radio’s Petros Papadakis, who explains it all in his trademark roar. Earplugs, anyone?

Photograph by Gregg Segal

He has called Frank and Jamie McCourt “chowderheads” and compared Pete Carroll to a Roman emperor. Since 2007, sports radio’s Petros Papadakis has conducted his daily Petros & Money show on AM 570/Fox Sports L.A., with cohost Matt “Money” Smith, employing the same blitzkrieg attitude that he displayed on the field as a USC running back. Now several pounds heavier, he dissects L.A.’s pro and college teams—not even his beloved Trojans escape the scalpel—in between belting out reggae tunes and sharing too much personal information, all in a baritone set perpetually at bellow. Papadakis was born in San Pedro, where his family’s Greek restaurant was a neighborhood fixture. He regularly appears as a commentator for college football on Fox Sports Net and was the first host of Spike TV’s Pros vs. Joes. Papadakis fortified himself with breakfast at Patys in Toluca Lake as he looked back at a painful year in local sports. 

The Bowl Championship Series stripped USC of its 2004 national title this year as a result of the NCAA violations. How do you tell winners that they’re actually losers?
You’ll have to ask the NCAA. Look, the NCAA is a governing body—they are not a court of law—and they make their own rules. But it’s like with any kind of business. If you own a restaurant, you’d better have a good relationship with the health department and the city. The truth is, Pete Carroll and [former athletic director] Mike Garrett created a bad relationship with the NCAA. They didn’t corral Reggie Bush when or after he was playing, and they were flippant with the NCAA when they came to investigate USC. That pissed off the NCAA. None of this had to happen. That’s what frustrates me the most. Not that the kid took money, because kids make mistakes. I’m not naive. But the aftermath—how it was handled by the kid and the coach and the A.D.—is what caused the problems at USC.

Evaluate the Pete Carroll era at USC.
I was at ground zero for everything that Carroll created. I saw the great ascension. I saw how they had their success. But I also saw how it got corroded from within and became a bit like the Roman Empire. I remember seeing five little kids lined up for autographs after practice, and Pete’s security guy hustled Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush past them like they were rock stars. I said, “This is bad. This is not college football.” The separating of those guys from the team—that was symptomatic of what happened. And there’s a billion stories like that, most of which I’m not comfortable telling, that shine a light on what went wrong. But nothing would have gone wrong if everything didn’t go so wonderfully right. Most teams that have a lot of success deal with these types of problems.

Reggie Bush won—and lost—the Heisman Trophy. What’s his legacy?
He was one of the most exciting, electrifying players at the college level. I saw him do amazing things. But he was a selfish kid, and there was nobody to reel him in. Pure hubris. I hate to see the other kids suffering because of the sanctions USC received, I hate to see the university suffering because of it, and I hate to see the conference suffering because of it. And because USC is the premier college football program on the West Coast, I hate to see college football suffer because of it.

How is Pat Haden doing as USC’s new athletic director?
We get idiots calling the show and saying, “Why isn’t Pat Haden fighting the NCAA?” and “What’s wrong with Pat Haden?” They should realize that Pat Haden is smarter than all of us combined. He’s brought in a compliant, conciliatory attitude and environment, and that’s the right thing to do. A great way to win a press conference is to hire Pat Haden.

Is Lane Kiffin the right coach to lead USC?
I respect him for having good people on his staff because a lot of young coaches, like Steve Lavin when he got the UCLA basketball job, don’t want an adult voice advising them. But I think, in general, we expect too much from our football coaches. We treat these guys like they’re leaders of society. We treat them like they’re Charles de Gaulle. This is a football coach, people. They’re P.E. majors. They drink light beer. There are a lot of good people in football, but there are a lot of climbers who use 18-, 19-year-old kids to get their next job. I’ve seen both of them, and I’ve seen both of them succeed.

Across town, UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel is on the hot seat. Will he keep his job?
He has to produce. If UCLA goes 6-6 and gets to a Bowl game, they’ll probably keep Rick. The truth is, the Bruins should be pretty good. They don’t have a quarterback, and that’s a big deal in this conference, but I’ve never seen depth like that on the front seven defensively.

Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott grew the league to 12 with the inclusion of Utah and Colorado. How’s it looking?
I’m a simple guy. If I’m doing a game at Cal, I have a hot dog at Top Dog. In Oregon I eat the Tater Tots. At Stanford I go to the Oasis in Menlo Park. That’s me. But college sports is a business, and Larry Scott is a visionary guy. He’s very polished—he’s the right guy at the right moment for the conference. With the new TV contract in 2012 [reportedly worth nearly $3 billion over 12 years], he’s been phenomenal for the schools and for the exposure of the conference. I’m comfortable with change because things are always changing. If you’re not comfortable with change, you should work in another business.

You seem to prefer college football over the NFL.
It’s in my blood. My dad took me to see USC at the Coliseum when I was growing up, into the locker room and in the tunnel with the players. All I remember is staring at a bunch of yellow asses because I was so small. But to me, college football is special because of the places, the tradition, the color, the pageantry. In college football kids make mistakes, and that leads to big plays and big excitement. I grew up a Rams fan because my dad rooted for them, but I’ve never been to a pro football game in my life. An NFL game in Tampa is the same as an NFL game in Philly. It’s just the weather’s different. It’s packaged, and everything’s homogenized. In the NFL everybody is so fucking good. The margin of victory is this [holds fingers apart]. It’s a marvel to watch them work, but it leads to less excitement.

Does L.A. need an NFL franchise?
The city does fine without the NFL, and the NFL does fine without the city. Are they going to be here? Yeah, politically they’ll cut through it eventually. But it no longer interests me because it’s been so freaking long. It’s 17 years—I’ve had enough. I don’t care.

There’s been a lot of talk about concussions in football.
It’s great as a topic if you’re on public radio and you speak in a hushed voice. But nobody playing football is worried about head injuries. If they were, they wouldn’t be playing. They’re there to make money because they know that their career can be over like that [snaps fingers]. In a perfect world, football wouldn’t exist. The sport breeds violence. Players are trained to respond with violence from the age of 14. It was great for me, and it teaches you a lot about yourself, but it’s a brutal game.

You popularized calling the Dodgers the “Doyers.” What’s the origin?
Dodger coach Manny Mota was a guest on the show, and he says it like that. We clipped it and started using it on the show. Now, ten years later, they’re selling T-shirts with DOYERS on them.

As a lifelong fan, what’s it been like to watch the team this season?
Sad and depressing. The night Frank McCourt bought the team, I had him on my show. Afterward I was like, It’ll be interesting to see how this goes. It just didn’t smell right. Then when the divorce news broke, I said on the air, “The sooner these people are gone, the better. This is going to be ugly.” No one could fathom how ugly, dirty, muddy, and depressing it would become.

You tell a lot of stories on the air.
Late at night, at my family’s restaurant, that’s what you’d do. There’d be three or four parties left—friends of ours, cops, wealthy people—and everybody would come to one table and listen to music and tell stories. When I was young, I’d be serving these people. When I got older and had more clout, I’d sit down. It was an intimate thing. We were a dining experience, and there’s not a lot of places like that.

You’ve been knocked for talking too much about your personal life, however.
Oh yes, especially when I first started. I wrecked at least a dozen important relationships. Maybe more. If you put me in your wedding, I was going to talk about your wife. There was a time when all that mattered was the two hours on the radio, this little piece of my day. The theme of the show was “Everyone’s welcome and nobody’s safe.” Being a little older now, I have more of a filter. It’s easier now because my life is more conventional. I’m married, and I go home at night, and my wife and I watch bad reality TV together. I’ve got to be honest with you—if I had to go on the air every day and talk only about the Dodger woes or what Angels rookie-of-the-year candidate Mark Trumbo’s batting average is or the NBA labor dispute, I’d go nuts. I always enjoy telling stories and opening the door a little to my life. People have responded to me making fun of myself and calling myself fat or ugly or lispy.

The transition from athlete to broadcaster couldn’t have been easy.
It was hard. In 1999, I shattered my right foot catastrophically during practice. It basically made me a cripple forever. They repaired my foot and got me back on the field for 2000. I wasn’t the same, but I could still play a little. My senior year was a disastrous season for USC football—the coach was fired—but everything was about this practice, this game, this moment. And then it was over. I didn’t have any plans other than working in the restaurant. I got a gig on TV talking USC football, and it was awkward because I was covering the team that I had played on. I felt like an athlete impersonating somebody else. I was comfortable talking with reporters as an athlete, but now I had to learn all of those nuances: how to interview people, how to analyze a football play quickly, how to look into a camera and talk while a producer is talking in your ear. How to dress myself and do the makeup. I needed a lot of polish. Slowly I began to feel like a reporter or an announcer or a commentator—all these different roles I play. I’ve become the mask.

What do your critics get wrong?
What I hear a lot is, “When I first started listening to you, I couldn’t stand you. I hated your voice. I thought you were obnoxious. I thought you were an asshole. Now I love you—I listen every day.” I’m assuming that most people who do my kind of job don’t get that a lot because most people are less offensive. I want a reaction. With so many people in sports talk radio, you can almost hear the producer saying to the announcers before the segment, “OK, you take that side and you take this side and argue.” I never had to do that because my opinions get enough of a reaction without having to contrive something. I’ve always felt fortunate in that way.

Do you want to go national?
I don’t care about being the number one this or that. Whatever happens, happens. What I want is to do radio every weekday and call college football games on Saturdays. I want to work. I’d like to do voice-overs for television. I’d like to pick songs for something—maybe be a wedding DJ. I’d be good.