Committed to excellence: Coach Phil Danaher and the Calallen Wildcats
By: Paul Romans
Photos by: David Olds
As I sit in the office with Jean Brown, the athletic department office manager, waiting for the athletic director/head football coach, Phil Danaher, I feel a certain commitment to excellence – a commitment that has lasted over 30 years. Brown has been here at Calallen for two years longer than Danaher, and she knows well the tradition that is Calallen football: 31 years of consecutive playoff football, which was preceded by 29 years of a playoff drought.
Danaher invites me into his office, which is adorned with trophies from the previous years, and pictures of his sons, Cody and Wes, who played at the University of Texas and SMU. In another picture is his daughter, Brittany, who graduated from Texas State University. It is obvious that faith, family and football are priorities to Danaher. He insists that one of the anecdotes for the longevity of their success at Calallen is the time that he, his coaches and his players get to spend with their families.
Danaher grew up in Harlingen, Texas. His mother and brothers moved there when Phil was 2 years old after he lost his father in an automobile accident. He never really knew his father. Danaher played football, basketball and baseball and ran track in high school at Harlingen, which was where he met one of his biggest influences, Coach Carl Spoonmore. Spoonmore brought out a passion for sports in Danaher, and Danaher still calls to check on Spoonmore today.
Danaher knew he wanted something more for his future. He wanted to be a father and a husband, but more than that, he wanted his kids to have more than he grew up with. Danaher was recruited by Angelo State University for football and baseball. After he arrived at Angelo State, the baseball program was discontinued, but he continued with his football scholarship. After college, Danaher continue to play baseball in semi-pro leagues throughout Texas until his sons were old enough to play ball. Danaher has maintained a competitive lifestyle throughout his life going from football, to basketball, to tennis and now to ping-pong. As you age, he says, the playing field gets smaller.
So I asked Danaher, “Leadership – where does it come from?” Danaher has always believed it is what you do, how you do it and how dedicated you are to doing it. Those who want to follow will follow. Leadership comes from deep inside each of us. Leadership comes from who we are – from the values that define and shape our actions. You lead by example.
It is your loyalty, and what you believe in. You have to make them believe the same thing you are trying to accomplish. That has been Danaher’s philosophy – that and having great assistant coaches. “It’s not that I am the smartest coach; I have surrounded myself with great coaches,” he said. “When you have good coaches, treat them right.” Danaher takes players from one of the smallest ISDs in the region and turns them into successful student athletes. He does this by keeping a good, solid coaching staff around him.
He enjoys family time, and so do his coaches. They take great strides to give coaches and players time with their families because that is what is important. He makes time for coaches to participate in the lives of their kids other activities, be it other sporting events or to take off to take their kids to college for orientation.
He has had two sons who have played Division I football: Wes for SMU as a running back, and Cody for the University of Texas as a strong safety. Danaher knows what it is like to need family time. He has told his daughter, Brittany, that if there were a scholarship for being beautiful, she would have gotten one, too. Brittany kept the stats, or rather a record of plays for the statisticians, through her high school years. She was right there on the sidelines with dad.
When Calallen was going to be moved to another district, Danaher was instrumental in keeping them in the 5A Region IV District 30 based on the high level of academics that Calallen maintains. It was argued that why would you jeopardize academic excellence by making students travel excessive distances for away games? Calallen excels in all aspects of academic measures in the district. Danaher takes immense pride in this.
I asked Danaher, “Why did you settle in Calallen? You were at Dilley and Hamshire-Fannett, but why did you stay at Calallen?” He responded, “There are many reasons why we stayed in Calallen. No. 1, we realized early on that this was where we wanted our children to grow up and have an opportunity to establish lifelong friendships. We wanted them to graduate from Calallen rather than uprooting them and moving from school to school. Other reasons include the outstanding and supportive school system, the community, good friends and a church family.”
Danaher never kept up with statistics or records. One of his friends told him a few years ago that he was approaching Gordon Woods’ coaching record at Brownwood. After surpassing that, he was on target to rival G. A. Moore for all-time winningest coach in Texas. He already holds the record of most playoff victories all-time.
Troy Jones, one of Danaher’s former players, remembers the first lopsided loss to Gregory-Portland when Calallen lost 69 to 0 his first year at Calallen. The next year, they had to do 69 push-ups at every practice to remind them of the loss and what they needed to do be better prepared for the next playoff run. Danaher took total responsibility for the loss. He was determined to build a better future, more prepared for the playoffs and more prepared for life.
Complacency seems to be one of their biggest enemies or toughest hurdles. The system becomes expectant on the playoffs. Sometimes it is hard to motivate players for what it takes to continue to be mentally and physically prepared for greatness every year. Our players were not even born when we made the first playoff appearance. They have grown up with not knowing what it means not to make the playoffs.
The season before last, Calallen had to win their last game of the regular season to make the playoffs. After the last practice, the week of the game, Danaher felt he had to motivate them and make them realize the importance of the game. Thirty years of playoff tradition was hinging on a victory in that game. Calallen won and continued the tradition of 30 consecutive playoff appearances.
Even though they made the playoffs, Danaher had to remind them that just making the playoffs didn’t qualify the team to have a trophy in the Trophy Room. Only champions get the privilege to have their team picture and trophy place in there. They don’t give trophies for just making the playoffs. You have to win a playoff game to be rewarded with a place in the Trophy Room. Needless to say, they won the bi-district championship 54 to 14.
The last day of school at the end of that year, Danaher sat the team down and reminded them of how quickly time passes. He used props to illustrate the years and delivered a motivational presentation that was designed to ensure that the athletes used their summer wisely in a way that would prepare them for success. He reiterated that it’s not just about a season; it is a lifetime of memories. The next year, they made the state quarterfinals and lost to the eventual state champion Cedar Park.
In 2005, Calallen lost in the state championship game to Lewisville Hebron. Hebron has an enrollment of 3,200-plus at their high school; Calallen has less than 1,200. The fact that Calallen was able to give them a good game is a testament to Danaher’s ability to build relationships with his athletes and to get them to perform far beyond what anyone expected. Players have said, “If Coach Danaher told me to run through a brick wall, I would do it because I know that brick wall would be gone by the time I got there.” Danaher says he hasn’t won a state championship yet. I believe God wants to keep him humble and keep trying.
Danaher does not coach for the record. He loves the game, and he loves being around the kids. That is what motivates him. He doesn’t feel any pressure to break the record. He does have former players and friends from Dilley and Hamshire who are going to be at the record-breaking game whenever that day comes. He coaches to win – not break records.
“I’ve been asked many times if I am thinking about retiring if and when I break the record,” Danaher said. “To be honest, I really don’t plan that far ahead. I love what I do; I am a competitor. The thought of sitting around without a routine does not appeal to me in the least. I have to compete. Whether it involves creating a winning game plan for football, then executing or playing golf, or simply playing a competitive game on my iPad, I have to be doing something competitive.”
When asked about the recent media uproar about praying at football games and what kind of influence religion had in his athletic program, Danaher said, “Every home game we have a devotional, it’s non-denominational. Either the coaches or one of the youth directors in the area preside over it.”
Danaher continued, “What I consider our biggest accomplishment is Still Water Christian Camp. Still Water Christian Camp is for underprivileged kids that get donations from the public. The young man who started it, Matt Moehrig, is a former football player from Calallen. He started out as a football coach, but found his true calling at the camp ministering to youth at the Still Water Christ-centered sports camp.”
Danaher’s sons help out at the camp as guest counselors. The camp is located outside of Fredericksburg, but they have facilities in Blanco, Leakey and Pagosa, Colo.
For more information, visit Still Water Camps online at www.stillwatersportscamp.com/main/index.php.