Monday, June 15, 2015

Long live King John of Summerville

ESPN's 2012 portrait of John McKissick
with the ring for his 600th victory

     John McKissick won his first state championship the year I was born.
     And another one the year I graduated from college.
     And another one the year I retired from sportswriting.
     I figured he might win one more the year I died.
     Of course, it was inevitable that he would have to stop someday, but I always figured John had one more season in him—maybe even one more championship. So did he. If you ever asked him about retirement, he always insisted that coaching football kept him young. Even this past winter, at age 88, he sounded optimistic about one more year.
     However, after leading his team through spring practice in the Charleston heat, he confessed, "I think my age is catching up with me." On Tuesday, after 63 years on the job, McKissick announced his retirement as football coach at Summerville High School.
     Think about it63 years in a profession where one bad year could be terminal. King John has reigned as long as Queen Elizabeth (and he has been crowned more often, too.)
     Public school teachers can retire after thirty years, but McKissick doubled that and still kept on working. His daddy taught him not to pay somebody else for work he was able to do himself, and he never did.
     McKissick became so iconic that Pat Conroy cast him as the standard of excellence in his 1986 novel, The Prince of Tides, where a fictional coach named Tom Wingo lamented:
"Never once did I defeat one of those awesomely disciplined teams of the great John McKissick of Summerville. He was a maker of dynasties."
     Conroy recited that passage when he wrote the foreword for McKissick's 1993 autobiography:
"That was my act of homage to John McKissick, and it expressed my utter admiration with how he has chosen to spend his life. A great coach teaches a boy or girl that the body is the temple of something sublime and wonderful. Coach McKissick has done this surprisingly well. I wish, in my heart, that John McKissick could have coached me in football when I was a boy. Quite possibly, he could not have made me a better athlete, but I think he could have made me a better man."
     Numbers are not the full measure of the man, but let's consider McKissick's accomplishments: 621 victories in 63 seasons, which is far more than any other football coach in history. 
     Now that McKissick has retired, he has established a distant target for John Curtis Jr., who ranks second nationally with 561 victories in 48 years at John Curtis Christian High School, a private school in suburban New Orleans that was founded by the coach's father. The younger Curtis, age 69, had an 11-1 record in 2016. If he averages 10 wins a year, he will be 75 before he catches McKissick.
     The winningest coach in college football history is John Gagliardi, five weeks younger than McKissick, who retired from St. John's of Minnesota in 2012 with 489 victories. Penn State's Joe Paterno, who was three months younger than McKissick, holds the major-college record of 409 after the NCAA restored his victories earlier this year. Dabo Swinney pointed out that McKissick won nearly twice as many games as Bear Bryant.
     The NFL record is 328 by Don Shula, who is four years younger than McKissick and has been retired for 20 years.
     Among all those giants, ESPN The Magazine called McKissick "Coach of the Century" in a 2012 story that I highly recommend.
     He was a child of the Depression and a member of the Greatest Generation. As he told ESPN's David Fleming: 
"During World War II, I was a paratrooper waiting to go to California with orders to ship out to the Pacific to join the 17th Airborne in battle. But then we dropped the bomb, and everything slowed down. The lives that decision saved or changed … I was one of 'em."
     I figure that McKissick has been carried off the field on his players' shoulders at least 14 times10 state championships, plus his 347th victory in 1987 that broke Pinky Babb's state record, plus the 406th in 1993 that broke Texan Gordon Wood's national record, plus his 500th in 2003 and 600th in 2012.
      His last state championship in 1998 was also the last football game I covered, as Summerville beat Gaffney 31-23 to wrap up a perfect 15-0 season. What I'll remember most about that season was not the state final at Williams-Brice Stadium but a first-round playoff three weeks earlier on John McKissick Field—the only time I ever had an opportunity to see a game in Summerville. Knowing my career change was imminent, I asked John if I could eavesdrop on his pregame speech, and he graciously invited me into the locker room. Sixteen years later, all I can remember is how businesslike it was. John, then 72 and in his 47th season, let an assistant give the pep-talk.
      I dealt with John every week for 13 seasons when he participated in our state coaches' poll, and he was unfailingly pleasant, accommodating, and wise.
     In 1991, when I was working on a centennial history book for Mountain View United Methodist Church in northern Greenville, I asked him if he might be kin to our founding pastor, Eli McKissick. 
     "He was my grandfather," John told me.
     Now, this grandson of a 19th-century circuit-riding preacher has become the grandfather of Summerville's 21st-century coach. On June 25, school administrators honored McKissick's recommendation and promoted his 36-year-old grandson, Joe Call, to be the head coach for 2015.
     If Joe has his grandfather's success and longevity, Summerville won't need another coach until 2067.

John McKissick set a national record with his 406th victorythen won 215 more.

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