Phil Danaher doesn’t remember who said it, but it was one of the first lessons he learned as a young coach: write down your goals. You may not look at them every day, but writing them down helps you carry them around in your mind.
So, more than 40 years ago, he scratched a few dreams down on a sheet of spiral notebook paper. Be a good husband and father. See his kids get college scholarships. Become a head coach by his mid-twenties and move up to a big school in his mid-thirties. One goal, however, was so audacious that it never crossed his mind to include it: win more football games than any Texas high school coach in history.
Danaher has now done just that. On Thursday, his Corpus Christi Calallen High School Wildcats defeated the Corpus Christi Flour Bluff Hornets, 31-7. It was the 427th victory of Danaher’s 43-year career, pushing him just past coach G.A. Moore, who won 426 games with Celina and Pilot Point high schools.
The game was close until the fourth quarter, when Calallen scored three times to turn a 10-7 lead into a 31-7 rout. The lead was safe enough that with three minutes remaining, the public address announcer told the crowd of around 5,000 they were “witnessing Texas history.”
A relieved-looking Danaher, still wet from being doused with Gatorade in the post-game celebration, celebrated with family, friends, and former players and coaches. Standing among two banners, one trophy, and three commemorative plaques, Danaher broke into a wide smile when he spotted Moore’s daughter. He pulled her close and introduced her to the crowd.
“Having all those people here from out of town and everything put a lot of pressure on me,” Danaher said. “Playing the game, I didn’t feel the pressure as far as the game. It was the pressure of the atmosphere.”
It was probably inevitable that Danaher would become a coach. He loves the thrill of competition. He attended Harlingen High School, where he played four sports and was named Most Valuable Player of the football team two years in a row. His own coaches in high school become surrogate fathers. When he was 2, his father died in a car wreck and his mother had to bring up four boys on her own. When his mom moved to Houston for a job, young Phil stayed behind in Harlingen, where coach Carl Spoonemore helped guide Danaher through those final years of high school and ensured that Phil went off to Angelo State University on a football scholarship.
He met his wife, Anita, at Angelo State, and they married soon after. Then it wasn’t long before some of those items on Danaher’s list of goals came to pass. In 1974, when he was 25, he became head football coach at Dilley High School, an hour southwest of San Antonio. He later moved to Hamshire-Fannett, an hour east of Houston, and then, at age 35, to Calallen, a Class 5A school with more than 1,000 students.
At each coaching stop, Danaher brought that competitive fire that has fueled him since he was a kid. His family and friends say he’s the most competitive person they’ve ever seen, and not just on the football field. Golf, ping-pong, cards, video games—he can turn anything into a contest. Even today, the 67-year-old grandfather finds it hard to wind down after a game. After everyone else has long gone to bed, he’ll be in his recliner, playing games on his iPad or diagramming plays for next week’s opponent.
“I’ve always wanted to win,” Danaher said. “I don’t always have to win, but I want to try to win.”
When he arrived at Calallen, the Wildcats hadn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years. They made it to the postseason in his second year. That started a string of 32 consecutive playoff appearances, the longest active streak in state history.
Assistant coaches Jim Cliburn and Rusty Hamilton were on the sidelines from that first season until they retired a few years ago, while defensive coordinator Steve Campbell has been there for every one of Danaher’s 33 seasons with the Wildcats. Three members of the current staff are former Calallen players.
“The men who taught me and coached me gave me the will to want to do the same for other kids,” said Cliff Fowler, an outstanding lineman for the Calallen teams of the early nineties who now coaches the offensive line. “They practically raise you.”
As the wins piled up, Danaher checked off more goals from that old handwritten list. His sons, Cody and Wes, played for him and earned college football scholarships. His third child, daughter Brittany, went on to attend Texas State.
When Danaher’s wife discovered his old list of goals in a drawer at their house a few years ago, they saw that one item remains unchecked: winning a state championship. His teams have come close, reaching the state finals in 2005 and the semifinals nine other times. If the Wildcats can win a few more games, then perhaps Danaher can finally fold up that list and put it away for good.