Camp Randall 100: Joe Panos

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.

“Barry is a smart guy. He knew exactly what he had — he had a bunch of hungry, hard-working dogs. And he knew if we figured out how to win — the attitude of not waiting for your opponent to lose but taking the game from them — we’d be really good.”

– Joe Panos on Barry Alavarez and motivating the Badgers

BY MIKE LUCAS | Senior Writer

Joe Panos
Joe Panos

Joe Panos, by any measure, by any name (and his was shortened from Zois Panagiotopoulos), has been the symbolic hood ornament of a productive walk-on program, a key foundational piece to the success formula at Wisconsin ever since Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1990. Panos trusted in the process and his ability to get the job done through the strength of his play and personality.

“He (Panos) epitomized what we wanted to be and who we were,” said quarterback Darrell Bevell. “He was a gritty kid from Wisconsin. He wasn’t the top recruited athlete, a five-star guy. But he did it through grit and hard work and toughness. That’s who Coach Alvarez saw our (1993) team being.”

By the time Panos reached his senior year, he was the strongest offensive lineman in the weight room with a 460-pound bench and a 645-pound squat and the unquestioned team leader on and off the field. A first-team All-Big Ten selection and second-team All-American, Panos was a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994 and went on to play seven seasons with the Eagles and Buffalo Bills.

Today, Panos is a sports agent for Athletes First, a firm that represents Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, among many other elite NFL players. Panos’ clients include a number of former UW offensive linemen: Travis Frederick, Kevin Zeitler, Ricky Wagner, Rob Havenstein, Ryan Groy and Ryan Ramczyk, a first-round pick by New Orleans in the 2017 draft.

Overall, Panos has represented 10 first-rounders and five Pro Bowlers.

While making the 45-mile drive from Whitewater to Madison, Joe Panos, a Division III defensive tackle, had no idea that his life was about to change. But after watching the 1990 spring game at Camp Randall Stadium, the first under head coach Barry Alvarez, who had been hired only four months earlier to resuscitate Wisconsin football, Panos thought to himself, “I can do this, I can play here.”

“I always considered myself a tough kid. I figured, ‘If this is about toughness, then I’ll be all right. They want a tough guy. They’ve got one.'”

– Joe Panos

Panos, a product of Brookfield East, acted on his instincts and transferred from UW-Whitewater. As a walk-on, there were no guarantees. But he was more than willing to take that chance because he believed in himself and what Alvarez was doing with the program. Nonetheless, he wasn’t ready for his first practice with the Badgers, a story that has aged like a fine wine from Sonoma or Napa Valley.

“Bernie Wyatt, a rough guy from the East, was one of the coaches,” Panos recounted, “and after I screwed up at his station, he says, ‘You better go back to Whitewater if you’re going to pull that crap because that doesn’t work here in the Big Ten, buddy.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done (by transferring here)?’ I wanted to take off my helmet and cry.”

There was a mass exodus of players during the early ’90s. Panos was not one of them. “Coach Alvarez wanted to weed out the bad kids, the soft kids, the guys who weren’t committed,” Panos said. “I was happy about that because I always considered myself a tough kid. I figured, ‘If this is about toughness, then I’ll be all right. They want a tough guy. They’ve got one.’”

Panos’ resolve was put to the test in 1991 when he started nine games (five at center, four at right guard). “I learned quickly what the Big Ten was about,” admitted Panos, whose holding call wiped out a Terrell Fletcher touchdown run in a bitter 10-6 loss to Iowa at Camp Randall. “Of course, I wasn’t holding, it was a terrible call,” Panos still insists to this day. “It cost us the (bleeping) game.”

The Hawkeyes nose tackle that Panos was accused of holding was Bret Bielema.

The Badgers made strides towards respectability in 1992 by upsetting Ohio State (Chad Yocum had three sacks of Buckeyes quarterback Kirk Herbsteit). But a loss at Northwestern in the regular-season finale kept them from going to the school’s first bowl since 1984. That had a galvanizing effect on the players, who developed an entirely different attitude during that offseason.

“Barry would say, ‘We don’t know how to win yet. Once we figure out how to win, we’re going to be a team to be reckoned with,’” Panos recalled. “Barry is a smart guy. He knew exactly what he had — he had a bunch of hungry, hard-working dogs. And he knew if we figured out how to win — the attitude of not waiting for your opponent to lose but taking the game from them — we’d be really good.”



Why not Wisconsin?

Panos posed that rhetorical question after the Badgers won the 1993 Big Ten opener at Indiana.

Why not Wisconsin?

“We knew what we had done in the offseason,” he explained. “We knew how hard we had worked. And we saw what we had on paper. All the pieces were in place. It wasn’t just blind faith or ignorance or confidence. We knew what we had, we knew that we were good. We knew we had a chance (to win the Big Ten), a good chance. That’s why I said it. Why not Wisconsin?”

The pundits weren’t giving Wisconsin much of a chance. And that factored into it.

“Barry kept pounding on us,” Panos said, “how we weren’t getting any respect.”

It became a time-honored tradition with Alvarez.

Why not Wisconsin?

“Who would have thought?” pondered Panos, now 46. “Some cocky moron, like me, says something after the Indiana game, and who would have thought that nearly 25 years later, we’re still saying it? That’s just awesome. I should have patented it. Or gotten a copyright on it.”

“That could have been my favorite moment ever in Camp Randall. It was a hero’s welcome. Pulling in on the field and seeing all our fans was surreal.”

– Joe Panos on the Badgers earning their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1963

There’s no expiration date on the memories from that ’93 season.

Four years ago, a woman reached out to Panos via email. She had been among those students trapped or trampled during a crowd stampede at the end of the Michigan-Wisconsin game at Camp Randall Stadium. More than 70 were injured from the force of the surge, primarily Sections O, P and Q.

“Chaos, just chaos,” Panos said. “That’s the only word to describe what happened.”

The cascading, human tidal wave was so powerful that the metal railing at the base of the northeast stands was lifted from its concrete mooring, leaving bodies piled one on top of another, four and five deep. Panos was among those players who jumped into the fray and dragged people to safety.

The emailer wanted to thank Panos. “She said that I personally pulled her out,” he related. “She’s living a great life now and she just wanted to tell me how grateful she still is. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time. But after I read her email, I called her up. She was awesome.”

A week after the Michigan win and postgame trauma — “It was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” said Panos — Wisconsin and Ohio State staged an epic 14-14 tug-of-war that wasn’t settled until OSU’s Marlon Kerner blocked Rick Schnetzky’s 33-yard field goal attempt on the final series.

“The big thing that I still remember are two thuds,” Panos said. “The ball coming off his foot (Schnetzky’s) and the ball coming off his hand (Kerner) from the block. I didn’t have to turn around and look because I knew what had happened. Marlon Kerner was later my teammate with the Eagles. Every day he brought it up. Then I showed him my Rose Bowl ring and he shut up really quick.”

The Badgers got to Pasadena for the first time since 1963 by beating Michigan State in Tokyo. Panos will never forget the return flight home or the bus ride from Chicago to Madison. The five team buses — with their lights flashing and the players’ noses pressed against the windows — were led onto the Camp Randall Stadium turf by a police escort and greeted by a large throng of adoring fans.

“That could have been my favorite moment ever in Camp Randall,” Panos said. “It was a hero’s welcome. Pulling in on the field and seeing all our fans was surreal.”

But there was still work to be done against UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

“I remember taking the field for our warmup and I was never more excited in my life,” Panos said. “I think me and Brian Patterson ran over a tuba player trying to get out there. We were like chained dogs, just barking. We couldn’t get out there fast enough.”

Not that the Badgers needed more ammunition to spark and embolden their lack-of-respect mindset, but they got some during the coin toss at midfield. The referee mistakenly referred to Washington, not Wisconsin, while addressing UW’s co-captains, Panos and Lamark Shackerford.

“He said, ‘Washington’ and I corrected him,” Panos said. “And, then, as we’re running off (returning to the sideline), he said it again, ‘Washington is receiving.’ As I’m running, I turn around and say, ‘It’s (bleeping) Wisconsin.’ Take a look at the video. You can see me mouthing it.”

It was music to Panos’ ears.

“I was so happy that he said Washington twice instead of Wisconsin,” Panos conceded. “It was just another thing to tell the guys. Barry used the ‘They don’t respect us’ thing all the way until we raised the Rose Bowl trophy (after a 21-16 win over the Bruins). That was genius on his part.”

And his. Why not Wisconsin?