John Panagakis
John Panagakis
Year: Class of 2012
Sport: Basketball

John “The Greek” Panagakis, who coached 28 years at College of Marin, worked briefly for the Florida Marlins and dedicated much of the next 40 years to working with the Special Olympics.

From the time he was hired at the college in 1966 to the time he left to work for the Florida Marlins in 1992, he had the opportunity to coach basketball, football, tennis, track, women’s basketball and one year of soccer. For him, it was about teaching, motivating, encouraging, rather than specializing in a particular sport.

Some say he could hardly contain his inner coach. Whether he was cleaning up in an off-court poker game or in the middle of refereeing a game, he has been known to offer up sincere and helpful advice to players on both sides.

“John was an outstanding teacher and he could teach anything,” said Joe Morello, dean of the Physical Education/Kinesiology Division at Skyline College. Morello recalled how, as a child, he heard almost legendary stories about him. “If you were a good basketball player, you wanted to go play with John Panagakis. You knew he was tough and you were going to work hard. I was scared of him.”

“The thing with John was he was always so much a coach; he couldn’t help coaching. Even as a referee he would tell you what you were doing wrong. He would tell players, ‘You need to do this,’ or ‘You should have been there.’ That coaching thing ran deep with him.” 

Morello also recalled a poker night when Panagakis cleaned out all the players while chaperoning a tournament in Chico.

“Then, he gave us all off our money back,” Morello said. “Even in gambling he was teaching us what was going on.”

College of Marin was not only a great place to work, but just a lot of fun, Panagakis said, recalling the privilege of working with renown coach Cal Riemcke, as well as the warm family of coaches in the Marin community. 

“Of course, I’m very appreciative,” he said, of being included in the Athletic Hall of Fame. “But, the whole PE department -- they all deserve it.”

From Riemcke he learned, “there is no ‘I,’ ‘me’ or ‘my’ in basketball. Everything is ‘we.’” Riemcke was “the epitome of what a coach should be…demanding everything” and yet fair, Panagakis said. “He was amazing, how he worked with athletes. I learned a lot from him.” 

Marlin Olsen, a colleague who hired Panagakis as a high school coach in 1961 and later worked with him at College of Marin, said Panagakis has a joke every day. He was known, however, for his methodical offense.

Panagakis was “a very particular coach,” he said. “When they had the ball, they weren’t frivolous. A lot of teams throw the ball down the court and try to fast-break. That’s not the coach he was. Once he got the ball they were going to work the ball and score. John’s teams were never in a hurry to take the shot. He was really tough to beat because his teams didn’t make many mistakes.”

In 1992, Panagakis left College of Marin to work as the first traveling secretary with the Florida Marlins. He remembered recently the ritual hazing he received as a newcomer to the team. The manager got him to put on the team uniform to practice but when he returned to the locker room, his clothes had been replaced with pajamas.

“Every time there’s a rookie to the team, they pull a stunt on him,” he said with a laugh. Despite the fun, missing his family brought him home again to the Marin area and he took a job organizing Special Olympics events in Northern California. 

Competition was less important to him than the sheer joy of athletics evident among the Special Olympians. Other coaches may talk about winning games but at the Special Olympics, you never lose a game, he said.

“It’s really what athletics is all about. They just enjoyed playing without a lot of pressure.”

Panagakis has dedicated his life to giving. “He gave his soul to whatever he was teaching and he treated everybody equal which was a fantastic thing to do,” said Jesse Munyon, a long-time friend. Munyon still remembers the unexpected lengths Panagakis went to consider others.

One day Munyon was walking on the street when Coach and his team were driving by on a bus.

“He pulled over and talked to me for 15 minutes. He is crazy like that.” 

Panagakis lives in Terra Linda. He has four children.