One of Joe Panos’ lasting memories from the 1994 Rose Bowl, the University of Wisconsin’s first appearance in the game for more than 30 years, occurred during the coin toss.
The referee unintentionally referred to his team as Washington on two separate occasions, Panos said, something he simply couldn’t let go. Rather than laughing it off and trotting back to the sideline, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound offensive lineman turned toward the official and emphatically corrected him.
“It infuriated me,” Panos said. “I was in the referee’s ear. ‘It’s not Washington … it’s (expletive) Wisconsin.’ I ran to the side and (we said), these guys don’t even know what state we’re in. They don’t even know what team we’re on. They see the ‘W’ on our helmets and think we’re freaking the Washington Huskies. Let’s let them know who the hell we are.”
No one mistakes UW for another program in Pasadena these days. The Badgers have notched five more appearances in the Rose Bowl since their 21-16 victory over UCLA that day. They’ll honor the team that started that trend at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday when UW takes on Nebraska, as more than 70 members from that 1993 team return to Madison to celebrate their accomplishments 25 years later.
Some of those players believe enough time has passed that many have forgotten exactly what it took to reach those heights.
Former head coach Barry Alvarez said more than 50 players left the program during his first offseason at UW in 1990 before the team struggled to a 1-10 record. The two straight 5-6 seasons that followed left the Badgers just short of their first bowl game since 1984, but those disappointments laid the groundwork for a memorable 1993 campaign that fans still immortalize today.
Even once they finally held the tools to succeed, nothing came easy. The Badgers’ first Big Ten title under Alvarez included an upset loss to their biggest rivals, a tragic postgame at Camp Randall that nearly ended lives and a 6,200-mile trip to play one of UW’s biggest “home” games ever halfway around the world.
“You can’t say enough of what Coach Alvarez has done and the program has done since then,” former offensive tackle Mike Verstegen said. “Winning has become the normal. But back in the 80s and early 90s, it was a struggle to win a football game.
“It was a lot of work from Point A to Point B and a lot of frustrations along the way. I think that’s what some people don’t realize.”
Despite a more difficult than expected victory at SMU in Week 2, UW made it through non-conference play and its Big Ten opener at Indiana unscathed.
Following the win over the Hoosiers, the media asked Panos about his thoughts on who would win the conference that season.
His response — “Why not Wisconsin?” — stuck with the Badgers for the remainder of the year as they continued to transform that thought into reality.
“That wasn’t fluff,” Panos said. “I meant every word of it. Why not us? Give me one reason aside from the fact that we haven’t done it before. Show me a better line. There wasn’t one. Show me better running backs. We had the two best running backs in the conference. Show me a better quarterback. Show me a better nose guard than (Lamark Shackerford).”
While Panos waited four games to say those now-famous words, Alvarez attempted to instill that confidence in his team during fall camp.
Alvarez wasn’t one to embellish his team’s potential. He even went as far as tempering his players’ lofty expectations before his first year at UW in 1990. Heading into his fourth season, Alvarez knew the Badgers were close to a breakthrough.
“The year before could have been a nine-win season,” said Alvarez, now UW’s athletic director. “We had the majority of our players back. I knew we had a good team. We showed we had good leadership in the summer. I tried to explain to them as we went through two-a-days, they’re as good as anybody we’re going to play. They’re as good as anyone in the league, and I went position by position. I tried to build confidence in them that there’s no reason why they couldn’t win.”
The Badgers’ only loss that season came after a 6-0 start, when they traveled to rival Minnesota and dropped a shocker to a Golden Gophers team that went on to finish 4-7.
UW fell without the help of offensive line coach Bill Callahan, serving a one-game suspension for a scouting infraction, and after Darrell Bevell uncharacteristically threw five interceptions on 48 attempts. Despite racking up more than 600 yards of offense, the Badgers failed to achieve their best start in school history.
“We knew that game was an anomaly,” Panos said. “That was nothing for us. That just made us more pissed off because we thought we could run the table, honestly. So that just added fuel.”
While the Badgers didn’t appear to struggle in moving on from that loss, their ability to remain focused became tested in a much different way after their 13-10 win over Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium the next week.
A wave of fans were trapped and trampled while attempting to rush the field immediately following the victory. More than 70 were injured, and in the moment it appeared many of those could ultimately lose their lives.
“Some of our players thought they were carrying dead bodies off the field,” Alvarez said. “Emotionally, I knew they were zapped. They put so much into the Michigan game, and then you had guys crying in the locker room afterward. … It was like a battle zone out here. Ambulances on the field and carrying kids off. It was scary.”
Panos was among the group of players trying to rescue fans.
“After I was in there pulling people out, I remember seeing a (piece of) scalp on my arm … about the size of a half dollar with long hair on it,” he said. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. That belongs on a poor girl’s head right now.”
Remarkably, no one died from the incident. Alvarez brought in mental health professionals for players to discuss the tragic experience if need be, and he eased their workload in practice early in the week.
The Badgers were able to maintain their poise, but their Big Ten championship hopes took another hit the following game when Ohio State blocked a 33-yard field goal to preserve a tie at Camp Randall.
The Buckeyes lost to Michigan two weeks later, however, opening the door for UW to share the conference title and earn a Rose Bowl berth with a victory over Michigan State.
The Badgers played that game, originally scheduled as a home contest, in Tokyo, Japan — a financially beneficial move that UW pulled the trigger on before that year began. No one could have anticipated the stakes would be so high for a program coming off eight straight losing seasons.
It resulted in a comfortable win for the Badgers regardless — a 41-20 victory that led a flurry of fans to welcome them back to Madison after the long trek home.
“We got thrown into the fire early in that program and definitely took our lumps,” said Mike Roan, who played tight end for UW from 1991-94. “We gained the experience, we were seasoned, had been in some battles, and to come out in a position to achieve something like that, it really was special.”
It became a special season for many more than just those on UW’s roster. That was visualized at the Rose Bowl, when the Badgers walked out of the tunnel to a sea of red overlooking the field.
Despite playing in UCLA’s home stadium, UW fans far outnumbered the Bruins.
“I thought it gave us a great edge in the football game,” said guard Joe Rudolph, now the Badgers’ offensive coordinator. “I think when we came out and we saw that place just covered in red, no matter what feeling you had going in, there’s a confidence that washes over you when you travel like that.”
In another eventful game to cap off an eventful season, two players from each side were ejected after a third-quarter brawl and an unlikely 21-yard scramble from Bevell secured a UW victory.
The Badgers finished 10-1-1, their highest win total in school history, and came in at No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll.
“It put us on the map,” Alvarez said. “It validated our program. If you’re not winning, you can get your in-state kids. But when you go out of state to recruit someone, they want to go where they’ll have success, where you’re going to go to bowl games. And if you’re not going, it’s hard to recruit guys.”
The 1993 season served as a springboard for the next 25 years. Alvarez won two more Rose Bowls in 1998 and 1999, Bret Bielema won three straight Big Ten titles from 2010-12 and UW’s coming off back-to-back wins in New Year’s Six bowl games under Paul Chryst.
The Badgers have compiled the seventh-best winning percentage in the country during that span, played in 23 bowl games and produced a 10-win season 12 times.
“The coolest thing was seeing the teams that came afterwards,” Rudolph said. “It’s awesome if you do something once, but it’s truly special when it carries forward.”