Dan Klages got his first taste of coaching when he was a student at Ashford High School.
“My junior year we got to coach a Powder Puff team,” Klages recalled. “I remember trying to organize that. It wasn’t real football, but it was about as close to being a coach as you could be at that time and that age.
“I had a couple of the girls call me, ‘Coach Klages,’ and I thought it had a nice ring to it. That was probably the first time I ever considered it. That got the ball rolling.”
Klages, though, also had a love of fishing and also considered a career as a fishery biologist. However, a few later years later as a student at Wallace College, he realized coaching was his calling.
“As I went through the process of the first couple of semesters of school, I realized that I missed football. I had played it since the fourth grade,” Klages said. “If you are not talented enough to play the game after high school, the only way to be involved in it is as a coach.”
Thus Klages, calling it a “strong pull” to be in the game, began a coaching journey that has eventually landed him induction this week into the Wiregrass Sports Hall of Fame.
In a career that started in 1985 and is still active, Klages has roamed high school sidelines in four decades, highlighted by 16 years as a head coach – one at New Brockton, four at his alma mater, Ashford, and 11 at Eufaula.
He has a 119-63 head coaching career record, not counting a win in that Powder Puff game. He will enter his 31st year as a coach this fall when he assists Bainbridge (Ga.).
“Growing up eight miles down the road in Ashford as a kid and reading the paper and watching WTVY and WDHN, you got to see these coaches and these really good players that are already in the hall, never really dreaming of being among them,” Klages said. “Obviously, it is a humbling thing.”
Klages credited a lot of people for his success as coach.
“Looking over the years, I have been lucky to rub shoulders with different people that maybe at the time I didn’t realize what kind of influence they had. But now looking back, they had a tremendous influence on my coaching philosophy,” Klages said.
“People like Crawford Drake, who was my head football coach. Jim Robbins was head baseball coach (at Ashford) and Terry Collins was an assistant baseball then. Kenneth Lord, who was longtime (Houston County) superintendent, was my head football coach my senior year. Those are some really quality people and quality athletic-minded people that I learned a lot from.”
He also said a lot of great assistant coaches who toiled in obscurity played a vital role, rattling off longtime assistants John Gilmore, Pat Vinson and Jamel Harris among others.
“The players do all the work, but you also have to have the assistant coaches,” Klages said. “A lot of those guys will never make it here because they are an assistant coach and unfortunately don’t have hall of fame stats for that.
“A lot of these guys might not ever be a head coach, but they would do things – like take a sick day to study film before a big game – that would cost them money.”
Klages’ biggest success came in the last 11 years at Eufaula, from where he retired this past winter. He guided the Tigers to a 90-39 record and to the playoffs every season. His 90 wins rank second in EHS history to Wiregrass Hall of Famer George Cochran.
During his Eufaula tenure, the Tigers won 10 or more games three times and had the school’s only back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 2005 and 2006.
The highlight was the 2006 team that went 14-1 and reached the Class 5A state championship game. That team featured current pro players Jerrel Jernigan (N.Y. Giants) and Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore Ravens).
“Both Jerrel and Courtney won Super Bowl championships in their rookie year,” Klages said. “I don’t know if that has ever been done with a high school coach who has a player win a Super Bowl in his rookie year and then the very next year have another win it in his rookie year.”
While at Eufaula, Klages was selected to coach in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game in 2007 and in the AHSAA North-South All-Star game in 2007 and 2012.
His love of football began at an early age and intensified in 1974 when he was a seventh grader. He watched Ashford High’s football team, with current Houston Academy head coach Jimmy Addison leading the team at quarterback, advance to the state finals before losing to Lauderdale County 14-13.
“That whole process of them going undefeated the entire way, going to all of the games, that kind of solidified my love for football,” Klages said.
While in high school, Klages, a quarterback, didn’t play much his 10th grade year, but he started as a junior and senior.
“I loved playing, but I was one of those who never made the all-conference team,” Klages said. “I was just good enough to start on a team that wasn’t real good in football.”
He also played basketball as a freshman and was on the baseball team his junior and senior years at Ashford.
After attending Wallace and Auburn University, Klages began his coaching career at Rabun County, Ga., where he coached from 1985-88. He was an assistant varsity football coach, head junior varsity football coach and an assistant coach for boys and girls basketball and baseball.
He then coached at Screven County (Ga.) in 1988-89 before being hired by Wayne Woodham as Eufaula’s defensive coordinator, head freshman/middle school coach and head baseball coach.
Klages stayed five years before landing his first head football job, doing so at New Brockton in 1994. The Gamecocks had only 16 players prior to his arrival, but he doubled the numbers to 33.
“We had to sell football before I sold myself,” Klages said. “We had a good turnout and the momentum was going the right direction. We didn’t go but 4-6, but we had a couple of close losses.
“New Brockton had a bunch of hard working kids and a supportive administration and faculty. I really enjoyed it.”
It was his only season there as a year later he had an opportunity to return to Ashford.
“First time back and being in the gym and they played that fight song, it was a very emotional moment,” Klages said. “A lot of folks don’t get the opportunity to coach at the school where they played. That was a special time.”
He coached the Yellow Jackets from 1995-99, leading the program to a 25-18 record with three playoff teams and one area title.
Eufaula head coach Mike Owens called in the spring of 1999 and he returned there. He served in Owens’ final year – a 13-1 state semifinal team – then on Shayne Wasden’s staff for four seasons before Wasden left for Troy University. Klages was hired to replace him.
The rest is Tiger history.
“My mission as a coach was to make the experience of athletics for each kid that was under my care to be the best,” Klages said. “Now, winning is always better than losing and we always wanted to win, but we wanted to have a good time. I feel kids play athletics for a lot of reasons, but the No. 1 reason is because they think it is going to be fun to do.
“I felt we needed to make sure as coaches, ‘Let’s make this fun first.’ If the kid is enjoying it, he will work harder, play harder and have that little edge that maybe someone that is doing it out of drudgery may not.
“When all is said and done, the trophies and championships kind of sit over there and collect dust, but the memories, the relationships and the good times will be what everybody looks back on. We wanted to make those as many as possible. I hope we have done that.”