High school coach going strong in 60th season

Aug 23 2011 - 8:15pm

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. -- The trophy case outside Summerville coach John McKissick's office is filled to capacity, a mix of silver championship prizes and yellow-edged photos from an unparalleled career that's spanned nearly six decades.

With 10 state titles and a record 586 victories, all with this South Carolina high school, the 84-year-old McKissick long ago became football's all-time national wins leader at any level -- high school, college or pro. Still, McKissick is out on the sideline getting ready for his 60th season in charge when Summerville travels to Conway on Friday.

"I enjoy coming to work," McKissick says simply. "I enjoy being around the coaches we got and the young people that are trying to learn this game."

And it's one McKissick doesn't think has changed all that much since he took the Summerville job in 1952. Then McKissick used the pre-eminent offense of the day, the option, to go 8-1-2, the first of his 57 winning seasons at Summerville. He used a similar scheme almost 30 years later when the Green Wave won 41 straight games and two of McKissick's state titles from 1978-80. Now, McKissick has his defensive staff watching film of powerhouse conference rival Goose Creek, which runs the option.

"That goes to show you that football is still fundamentals," McKissick said.

No one's more fundamental than McKissick, who still sets his alarm for 6 a.m. each day. He sits in on meetings, watches players lift in Summerville's weight room and strategizes with assistants.

"He's in charge," said offensive coordinator Joe Call, a former Summerville quarterback and McKissick's grandson.

McKissick's place atop football was cemented years back. Some thought he might step away in 1993 after setting the wins record with his 406th. McKissick had the chance to leave on top in 1998 with the last of his state championships. He wondered if he might get pushed out after 2001's 5-7 mark, McKissick's first losing season in 44 years, but two years later he was carried off the field that bears his name with his 500th victory.

Now, each year McKissick returns, he's asked if he's chasing 600.

"They'll always say, 'I know what you're doing, coach. You want to get 600,"' he said. "I don't want to get 600; I want to get 587" when Summerville starts its season.

McKissick is almost 100 wins ahead of his nearest active rival, 64-year-old John T. Curtis, who has 492 victories at Curtis High School in River Ridge, La. Call, McKissick's grandson, believes the coach is gratified by the one-of-a-kind achievements.

"He's got that banner of 400 (wins) hanging over there and wears a ring for 500," Call said with a smile. "I think it means more than he lets on."

McKissick has had to make allowances for age. He felt dizzy in 2005 and had a pacemaker put in to keep his heart going. He doesn't jog around Summerville's athletic fields the way he did a decade ago. But that hasn't stopped him from fielding some of the best teams in South Carolina high school football. Just four years ago, the Green Wave featured Georgia star receiver A.J. Green, who was picked No. 4 in last year's draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.

McKissick had a streak of winning a state championship in every decade he coached, until this last one. Though McKissick's not so sure that run shouldn't have continued. He said the team's video of the 2005 state title game against Gaffney showed Green had come down with a last-second reception in the end zone that would've given the Green Wave the victory instead of a 33-32 defeat.

"I think he made the catch," McKissick said with a grin.

Green isn't the only player McKissick has helped to the pros. He coached brothers Stanford and Keith Jennings, along with offensive linemen Kevin Long and Jamar Nesbitt.

Call said McKissick had blended experience and youth on his coaching staff to keep in touch with teenagers. It also doesn't hurt to keep things in the Green Wave family. All but two of McKissick's 10 assistants played football at Summerville. Two of his staffers, linebackers coach Comp McCurry and secondary coach Britt Blanton, are sons of former McKissick coaches.

The pride of the program gets passed down from one group to the next, even if the talent doesn't always match those of Summerville's glory days.

"Our kids don't want to be the ones that give that up," said Call, 32.

McKissick's cinderblock office is much the same as it has been since moving there in the mid-1990s.

"We've had to put in a couple of shelves, but that's it," said athletic assistant Donna Crowe.

There are state proclamations and yellowed pictures of players through the years. Crowe's office has photos of Georgia coach Mark Richt, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and former Florida coach Urban Meyer, all who've been down to visit.

The one college great McKissick hasn't met? His partner in longevity, Penn State's Joe Paterno. The Nittany Lions' longtime coach always invited McKissick to Happy Valley for a visit, but Summerville's coach couldn't ever make it work.

Joan, McKissick's wife of 59 years -- they'll reach 60 in June 2012 -- has said she long ago gave up asking him about retirement. In fact, she's shown a football toughness that runs in the family following a fall that required hip surgery. McKissick said his wife's only goal during rehabilitation was to make it for Summerville's opener.

"She's going to do it," he said.

Through it all, McKissick says he's never lost his desire for the job. Too often as he's aged, McKissick said, he's had friends retire from a life they couldn't replace with time off, something he isn't eager to try.

"You need a purpose," he said. "Everyone does."

 

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