Backstory: Dean of the gridiron

High school football legend John McKissick, the winningest coach of all time, is quick to credit the community, the school board, and the principal for his success. Easy for him to say. Both the chairman of the board and the principal of the school played for him.

Fact is, almost half the town played for him at some point over the past 54 years, during which he racked up more than 500 wins, 10 championships, and 28 regional titles – all either world, national, or state records. "Kids he coached are now grandfathers in the stands," says Joanne McKissick, his wife. "It's pretty amazing."

After peering down a half century's worth of boyish faces and grass-stained jerseys, McKissick has become a household football name throughout the Palmetto State – and beyond. But here in Summerville, what could be called McKissick's laws – order, detail, forgiveness, teamwork – have leeched from the gridiron into the very clay of the community.

His protégés are now so plentiful that they shape the town as doctors, lawyers, and politicians. All in all, he has coached 3,276 players since he first started striding the sidelines in 1952. "He's shaped us all," says assistant coach Steven Steele, who played for McKissick in the early '90s.

And they have come to expect nothing less than victory, Friday night after Friday night. With only two losing seasons to his name, McKissick tends to deliver. After trouncing Battery Creek 41-14 on a recent Friday, this year's Summerville High School squad is 10-0, ranked in the Top 20 in the country by USA Today.

***

Oddly, McKissick started out as a "repo" man, collecting unpaid goods for an insurance company. It was a decent job for a guy who had bounced around colleges before getting a degree. But he hated the work. Desperate for a coaching job, he took a position in Clarkston, N.C., a town so small that it had to compete in a six-person football league. He called a friend. "I don't know anything about six-man football," he said. "What are you talking about?" the friend replied. "You don't know anything about 11-man football."

Clarkston posted a 7-3 record that year.

When a slot opened up in Summerville, a sleepy town with oaks and dirt roads, he jumped on it. Summerville was already a football power, with two state championships. He got the job knowing he had to succeed – quickly.

To prepare, he studied football books late into the night. He instituted a brusque new order in the locker room. When it came time to address his first pep rally, he had just finished wrapping a player's ankles with tape. He kept rubbing his hands to get the glue off as he spoke. He has rubbed his hands during every pep rally since – a McKissick trademark.

One night during that first year, he and his wife decided to go to the theater. She waited on the porch while he pulled the car out of the garage. She was still waiting as he drove off into the night – lost in thought about football.

The Green Wave won 10 games that year.

***

Summerville is like the movie Pleasantville, without the creepiness. The downtown, circa 1950s, is immaculate. Barbershops brim with grinning kids. In October, locals decorate the town square with pumpkins and scarecrows. The suburb just north of Charleston has grown dramatically – from 6,000 in the 1970s to 25,000 today. Its high school is now the largest in the state, with 3,100 students. Yet the town has maintained a sense of tranquillity and tidiness.

Locals attribute part of this to the simple credo of longtime mayor, Berlin Myers: If you see a weed, pull it. Yet few people have had as much impact on the psyche and values of the town as McKissick. "If you walk down the street 10 years after graduation [wearing] your letter jacket, smoking, they'll take it from you right there," says Jerry Nettles, a quarterback in the 1950s.

Even newcomers quickly sense how far his persona and legacy burrow into the town's taproots. "It's wild that they let him get away with imparting these old-school values," says Don Daniels, a transplant from Maryland. "In another place, he'd be a dinosaur."

Like many towns in the South, Summerville is frenetic about football. On Friday nights, the stands are filled with fans and generations of gridiron greats. Two thirds of the stadium is usually reserved for former players and their families. The next morning, many team members gather at Simmons Barber Shop to tell stories about the game and to have their performance deconstructed by players who go back to 1952.

"If they did well, they'll hear about it," says Coach Steele. "If they didn't do well, they'll hear about that, too."

***

In 2003, McKissick notched his 500th win. Today, his record is 541-127-13. He has already been inducted into the National High School Football Hall of Fame. He holds the record for longest high school coaching career – and the most time spent at one school.

Over the years, he has turned down numerous job offers from colleges. One reason is that he sees an opportunity here that other schools might not give him. No one forces him to cut players. He often carries 90 players on the varsity squad.

Most of all, he likes to shape the character of the young and knows that fielding a winning team is inspirational. He also always works with problem players to help turn them around. "At least I have them here in the afternoons where I can see them," he says.

After 54 years on the sidelines, McKissick has slowed down. He now tools around the practice field in a golf cart. But he still gets out to show a player how to set up for a field goal or how to tackle properly.

If there's one philosophy that defines his on-field strategy, it is, according to his wife: "Three yards and a cloud of dust." In other words, pound the ball on the ground. Hit the holes. Take your gains, no matter how short. When he has a talented receiver, he will pass. But mostly he likes to run. It is a conservative philosophy, but who's arguing with Saint John? Opponents "know what he's going to do, but he dares them to do something about it," says former player Dennis Folden.

Trademarks of McKissick teams are consistency and discipline. "He has them run through almost every possible scenario, so they know what they're doing when it's happening," says Dickey Dingle, the school principal. "There's rarely any scrambling around."

McKissick, who turned 80 last month, shows no signs of hanging up his cap. Joanne bought two seats at Memorial Stadium, the local football venue, figuring her husband would join her when he retired. That was 20 years ago.

Joe Call, McKissick's grandson, quarterbacked for The Citadel and is now an assistant coach. Some see him taking over for McKissick when the time comes. Really?

"See that old live oak over there," says Mr. Call, pointing to a majestic tree in back of the end zone. "They tried to kill that tree by drilling holes and pouring salt into it, but instead it just grew and grew. My grandfather always glances over at that tree when the team comes out of the locker room. I think he sees something of himself in it."

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