John McKissick, the forever coach, finally steps down

John McKissick can stack the wins higher than any football coach that ever was. He can slide, uneasily, into retirement knowing that he has laid down a solid baseline for a few thousand young lives and made his town puff out its chest just a little bit more.

Summerville, a fast-growing place 20 miles west of Charleston, brags on a couple of things, among them: It’s the birthplace of sweet tea and the former workplace of John McKissick.

It’s partially because of him that the police cars in Summerville are striped in green and gold. Because those are the colors of the local high school with the 10 state titles.

It once was the rule: When Halloweens fell on a Summerville High football Friday night, the children did not go trick or treating until Saturday, after McKissick’s Green Wave had played.

Yes, all very impressive. But, first, the shower-cap story.

It was the late 1950s and McKissick already had two of his 10 state championships in the larder. While getting ready to play North Charleston, he noticed in practice that the pullovers his players were wearing to distinguish the good guys from the scout team weren’t showing up enough when his linemen were crouched low.

So the coach went shopping. He bought 30 plastic shower caps and some spray paint. McKissick hung the shower caps from a clothesline and sprayed them blue. He then had guys on one side of the ball slip the colored caps over their helmets in the next practice.

Today, the polyester helmet scrimmage cap is a ubiquitous accessory. McKissick held the first patent on them.

“I made enough to send two daughters off to college, bought them automobiles, gave them Christmas bonuses every year for 10 years after they got out until the patent ran out,” the coach said with a smile.

On Tuesday, the inventor of the helmet scrimmage cap announced his retirement. Oh, and among the 88-year-old McKissick’s other achievements were the 621 victories at Summerville accumulated over a nearly incomprehensible 63 years coaching at the same school.

For those keeping score, his win total is 79 ahead of the second coach in the high school ranks — J.T. Curtis of John Curtis Christian (La.) — 212 more than Joe Paterno and 274 more than Don Shula.

He doesn’t keep score. As he said years ago, “In 1952, we beat Wade Hampton 27-7 (for his first victory). After that, it’s been one game at a time.”

His grandson, Joe Call, now the Green Wave’s offensive coordinator and possible successor to McKissick, was a ballboy in 1993 when his grandfather broke the then-existing record for high school victories (405). “I remember walking onto the field with him with all the news media and everyone around and I asked him, ‘What’s all this for?’ Call recalled.

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess this game means something to everyone else — I just hope we win,” McKissick answered.

When he took the job in 1952, McKissick was paid $2,700. He and his wife, Joan, supplemented the salary by delivering phone books in the summer. He ran the wing-T offense, and his players wore helmets that offered only a single skinny bar across the face. Harry Truman was wrapping up his second term.

When he retired Tuesday, 11 presidents later, he went into the district superintendent’s office hoping just a little to be talked out of his decision. After all, he wouldn’t be 89 until later this year. No need to rush into anything.

"If they would have said, 'Coach, you need to stay, I would have probably stayed," McKissick said Wednesday. "They didn't say you need to, they said it was up to me, whatever I wanted to do. That's fair enough.

“I’ve had a great run here.”

He was speaking the morning after he announced his retirement, right back at the familiar football offices. He was just checking in.

McKissick coached so long that what we consider fundamental aspects of his game were his inventions. He was one of the first coaches in South Carolina to film games (opposing coaches once tried to ban his 16mm camera from their stadiums). He is credited with being among the first to employ bump-and-run coverage in the secondary.

You know you’ve coached a very long time when one of your former players — his name, Harry Blake, a 65-year-old insurance man in town — said, “I even think Coach outlived his legacy.” That same day, Blake’s grandson, Cameron Blake, was lifting in the team’s sweltering weight room and talking about the surprise and disappointment he felt when he heard Coach wasn’t going to be there for his senior season.

Five years into McKissick’s career at Summerville, having gone 52-2, the big school in Sumter came sniffing around. It was the closest he ever came to leaving. Once a wealthy Summerville booster offered to swallow the note on the coach’s house, he was in for the duration. McKissick never seriously considered moving out of town — or out of that house, for that matter — again.

“He’s the definition of stability in an unstable world,” said Billy Baker, who authored two books with McKissick. Just how unstable was horrifically demonstrated in nearby Charleston one day after the coach’s announcement.

Times changed radically, but McKissick did so far more slowly (although he was quick to adapt his offense to the times and to his talent).

Consider the 1960s, or the dawn of “the hippie movement,” as the coach put it. Kids started showing up with long hair. And the coach came to believe that a teenager with long hair was “not really a team person.”

McKissick never cut a willing player in his life; it was up to the kid to cut himself. And he never directly ordered a player to go to the barber. But during the post-practice wind sprints, it always seemed the ones with the flowing locks were commanded to do a few more up and backs. They got the message.

The position of high school coach in the South is one of great responsibility, befitting a tribal leader. The mayor may fix the potholes, but it’s only the high school coach who can beat those rivals in the next county. The coach’s work shapes a southern town’s sense of worth. Averaging nearly 10 victories per year for 63 years, McKissick inflated Summerville to the point of bursting.

So, who is the most famous personality in Summerville — the longtime high school coach or the wide receiver who went on to fame for the Georgia Bulldogs and in the NFL?

“Oh, I think he’s got me,” Cincinnati Bengal A.J. Green said.

By informal reckoning, more than 5,300 players passed through Summerville under McKissick’s watch.

They all picked up the same lessons as the former quarterback, Perry Cuda, who owns the funky hot dog shop on Summerville’s Main Street — Perfectly Frank’s (“As Seen on the Food Network”).

Said Cuda, who also made a cameo at Alabama during Bear Bryant’s last season: “Coach Bryant and coach McKissick taught the same thing: Hard work always pays off. It takes longer with some people, but if you stick with it, don’t quit, it always will pay.”

They may not have reached the football heights of Green, but they all benefitted from the same experience as he. “I came from a place where it was all about winning, and you adopt that mindset,” he said.

Football so dominated his life that after 63 years of joyfully giving himself to its rhythms, McKissick frankly doesn’t know how he’ll adapt to retirement.

“I told my wife it’s going to look kind of funny when I’m 89 and she’s 85 and we’re getting a divorce,” he joked.

“Some people retire too young. When you get older and retire there’s nothing else you want to do. Right now, I can’t think what (else) I want to do.”

His health is relatively good, although all those decades coaching up the sons of Summerville in the Lowcountry sun have ravaged his skin. This much he knows for certain: He’ll not stray far from the place he has helped define. “I have some lots out there in the cemetery (practically across the street from the school), so I guess I’ll be around even after I’m gone,” he said.

And what, in turn, will Summerville football do without McKissick? The town and the team will continue to commune on Friday nights, nothing can change that. But it can never again enjoy the sense of comfort and permanence it had with its seemingly indestructible coach.

“It’s like cutting down a tree that has been growing for 63 years. You don’t replace it for a long, long time,” Baker, the coach’s biographer, said.

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