Jim Klaczak can tell countless fascinating stories about his more than 30 years of coaching football in both high and low places.
But the one that might apply most to his next role, as head coach of the Calistoga High football program, has to do with his job as athletic director at Trinity Prep the last two years.
The tiny Napa school had good athletes this past school year, but not enough to field two of the three boys sports it usually offers, soccer and baseball.
“The Trinity kids didn’t have anything to play, so they wanted to play flag football,” he recalled. “We started a team, and there were like six or eight flag football teams in Northern California that were playing very well and had big tournaments. I’d never been involved in it before, but it was a lot of fun.”
The Crusaders got a late start, so they didn’t play 10 games like most of their opponents did. But they did play seven games and, despite being greener than a Calistoga football helmet, finished 7-0.
“Other coaches wondered how we did it when we didn’t even have a kid who had played Pop Warner (youth football),” Klaczak said. “It was easy because they didn’t have any bad habits. Everything I told them was golden, the way it should be, and they were pretty good athletes. We only threw the ball five or six times a game and we had four shutouts.”
Shutouts, in a sport where each team has only six players on the field at a time?
“Everyone scores 50, 60 points in flag football, but all of a sudden you play defense and everything gets a little tighter,” Klaczak said. “Next thing you know, we’re up 28-0 and no one can figure out why. We controlled the ball. It was opposite of what everybody else does. So it’ll be interesting what we do with eight-man.”
That’s the kind of football Calistoga has played the last three seasons, due to low player turnout, and the kind Klaczak hopes to see the Wildcats leave behind and switch back to the 11-man game.
Despite coaching high school football from 2001 to 2014 in three states, he’s never coached eight-man before. But the challenge was part of what made him want to take the Calistoga job.
“One of the things that interested me was that they had played 11-man before and were trying to grow,” the Napa resident said of the Wildcats. “And the small-town thing interested me, too, and I like the area.”
Klaczak was a center when he played, first in high school in Levittown, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia, until he graduated in 1963. He went on to play a season each at the University of Illinois and Taft College in Southern California, and his final two years at the University of San Francisco.
He was invited to the Washington Redskins’ training camp in 1968, and again when they were coached by the great Vince Lombardi in 1969. Klaczak was released by Washington at the end of camp due to injury each year.
After that, he went into coaching, first at the helm of his USF alma mater for two years in the early 1980s.
He went on to serve as the offensive line coach at LSU, Texas A&M, Hawaii, Arizona State, San Francisco State and Menlo College. He was with teams that played in the Fiesta, Sun, Liberty, Citrus and Peach bowls.
After leaving the college game, Klaczak returned to football as a successful high school head coach, leading programs at Brook Hill School (Bullard, Texas), St. Anthony (Maui, Hawaii) and in the Bay Area at De Anza-Richmond. He was also an assistant at Lahainaluna High in Hawaii when it won Maui Football League titles two out of three years and reached the state finals twice.
At Brook Hill, he was named the District Coach of the Year after taking the Guard to a 9-2 record and to the second round of the state playoffs one year.
“My first year there, we were picked to be last in the district, and in the district championship we played the team that was picked to be first,” he recalled. “We were down 14-0 with six minutes to go and we came back and scored 14 points and took it into overtime. They won the toss and took defense, and we scored to go up 21-14. They got the ball, we threw them for a loss, they got desperate and threw one in the end zone. We picked it and, boom, game over.
“It was windy and cold and miserable, and that night my freshman tailback carried the ball 33 times for over 300 yards. The Dallas papers were all over me, so I put out the old John McKay (former USC coach) line about O.J. Simpson: ‘Well, the ball ain’t heavy.’ We went all the way to the state semis.”
The next year, Klaczak decided to get an edge on Brook Hill’s competition by holding practice at an unusual time. He ended up as shocked as the other coaches.
“This will tell you about Texas football,” he recalled. “You got three days in no pads and then you could start hitting the fourth day. I wanted to be like basketball and have midnight madness, and hit before anybody else in the state that fourth day. So we were going to get started at 12:01 (a.m.). One of the managers came in and said ‘You been out there yet?’ I said ‘No, I’m getting the practice schedule set up.’ He said ‘Well, you’re not going to believe this.’
“We go out to practice, and the stadium is packed. There must have been 8,000-9,000 people there. The band was there, Dallas TV stations, the radio station. It was like Saturday afternoon. They came out to watch a 50-minute practice at midnight. It was pretty cool.”
At Trinity Prep, Klaczak opened eyes by holding what he said was the “first home sporting event in the history of the school,” a home football game this past fall.
“We turned the baseball field into a football field and brought some stands in and got some music and we had a homecoming football game,” he recalled. “People were saying ‘This is great,’ and I said ‘Well, football is a great thing.’”
He hopes to keep Calistoga football – which went a combined 17-7 in eight-man the last three years under Mike Ervin – great, too.
“Most programs I’ve taken over in the past have been in dire straits, having won three games in five years or whatever. But they’ve been successful here,” he said. “I feel like the support’s there, too.”
At De Anza, Klaczak said, he took over a program that had lost 40 straight games.
“The seniors had never won a football game,” he recalled. “We went .500 the first year and won the Richmond Cup by beating all the other teams in Richmond.”
But that was 11-man football. Since accepting the job at Calistoga last month, Klaczak has studied film of the eight-man game, learning plays and the rules.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”