Many a legend got launched in 1952. “3 O’Clock Blues” topped the Billboard R&B chart, the first national hit song by a Mississippi native named B.B. King. Scribner’s published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. And John McKissick, a twenty-five-year-old former army paratrooper from Kingstree, South Carolina, won his first game as head football coach of the Summerville High School Green Wave. Sixty-three autumns later, McKissick, now an eighty-eight-year-old great-grandfather, is finally stepping down from manning the sidelines on Friday nights in Summerville, a swelling suburb twenty-five miles from Charleston. With 621 career victories, he has more wins to his credit than any football coach in history, living or dead, at any level. He’s coached three generations of players, many of whom have gone on to powerhouse college teams, and several to the NFL, including A.J. Green, star receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. Number of state championships the Green Wave won under McKissick: ten (in five different decades). Number of games he missed over the years: zero. We caught up with one of the greatest to ever call a play to get his thoughts on his unparalleled run.
In sixty-three years in Summerville, you had only two losing seasons. What were your secrets to winning so consistently?
Being in a town that loves athletics. [Having] good school administrators who look at athletics as an important part of the total school curriculum. And football’s always been popular. The young kids look at it as an honor to be a part of the program.
We never went into a game that we didn’t think we could win. And if you think you can, a lot of times you can.
When you reflect back on your career, what stands out?
The guys that came through the program. There are a lot of professional people: automobile mechanics, filling station operators, grocery store owners, lawyers, doctors…I’ve had a lot of people tell me they’re successful in what they do because of what they learned on the field.
You never cut a kid who tried out for football. Why not?
If they did what we asked them to do and they wanted to be a part of it, I let them be a part of it. And if we were fortunate enough to get ahead in a ball game, I’d play them. I believe if they try, they ought to have something to feel good about.
How has high school football changed since you started out?
You have more skilled athletes now, because of weight-lifting programs and nutrition. And kids who like football get a coaching clinic on TV—the color commentators drawing the plays. They’re more knowledgeable than they used to be.
You’ve won more games than Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden, or Don Shula did. Do you see yourself as being at the same level as legends like those?
I don’t know. I’ve met all the guys you just named. They’re just regular people. [Laughs.] Don Shula was strict. Bear Bryant was strict. If you look at it, it comes down to discipline.
You turned down opportunities to coach college ball. Couldn’t you have had just as much impact on young people at that level?
The first five years I was here, we went 52–2. So I got a few feelers, people calling me. My wife loved Summerville. I had two daughters; they loved Summerville. I might’ve had to go by myself if I’d have left. [Laughs.] And the pay [for college coaches] back then wasn’t that good either. I remember the job at the Citadel, the head coach was making $24,000, and over here I was making just about that much.
From 1969 on, once your teams became racially integrated, did you need to change anything about how you coached?
No. We treated everybody the same, didn’t make any difference who it was. We never really had a problem with integration here. In fact, I think sports helped that, made it smoother.
When a player like A.J. Green comes along, can you tell right away that he’ll make it big?
Most of the ones that went on, I could tell when they were freshmen there was something special about them: easy to coach, team players, practiced as hard as they played. Most of these guys never goofed off.
I remember A.J. as a ninth grader, stretching out to catch a pass in practice and hittin’ the ground. He never blamed the quarterback. He said, “If the ball’s thrown to me, then I’m supposed to catch it.” And then Kevin Long, who played at Florida State and went on to play for the [Tennessee] Titans, he was the same way: practiced every play just as hard as he did in a game. [Former NFL players] Stanford Jennings, Keith Jennings, all that group; you could tell they were different.
You never missed a game, not even the day after your father died. Why did that matter so much to you?
Well, for one thing, I guess you’re selfish. You want to forget the bad times—you want to forget the father passing away, you want to forget your injury and just go with life. That’s what I like about kids playing football: It’s so much like life—you get knocked down, you better get up!
Do any games stand out as unforgettable?
I guess my first game here as coach. We were a small community and a small school back then. We won the ball game, and I said, “Man, this is good. This is a good feeling.”
The NBA’s Pat Riley said, “There’s winning and there’s misery.” Do you agree?
[Laughs.] Yeah. A hundred percent! It’s hard to get [a loss] out of your mind. One good thing about it: Most of the time, you’re sitting there frettin’ over the thing, and then you see the sixteen-year-old, he forgets it, the majority of ’em, immediately. They don’t worry about it afterwards. They shake it off, which is good.
The team plays home games at John McKissick Field, and the street by the stadium is John McKissick Way. Are you comfortable with those kinds of tributes?
I like it for all the players that have played for me. They came through here, and Coach McKissick was the coach. They’re proud of it, so if they’re proud of it, I am too.