John McKissick has died. The picture in the first obituary I read reminded me of a similar pose by General Douglas MacArthur…a green and gold baseball cap instead of a military-style hat with scrambled eggs on the visor, no corncob pipe, but the same jutting, strong chin, and intense look. Arms crossed in front of his body, he was an imposing figure despite the hint of a smile. The picture reminded me that along with soldiers, old coaches never die. They live on in our memories, especially if they are legendary. McKissick was legendary as was MacArthur…but without MacArthur’s narcissism.
I knew Coach McKissick…but I didn’t know Coach McKissick. A big man, I shook hands with him and his hand swallowed mine. He was the legend. I was just starting out, a wet behind my athletic whistle young coach. He was on his way to becoming the winningest coach in high school football, not just in South Carolina but nationally. No one has won more games, 621, ten of them State Championship games.
Perspective. He became the head coach at Summerville High School when I was two years old and retired the same year I did. I coached for forty-five years. He spent sixty-three years as the head coach at the same school. Over five thousand players…in some cases, three generations of players. Further perspective, he won 604 more games as a head football coach than I did.
Coach McKissick was a legend and I was a peon; a child and we all know children should be seen not heard. I learned over time Coach McKissick would have never thought of me that way. It was my own insecurities melting me under his gaze.
I misstated earlier. Coach McKissick is a legend. He still lives on in the hearts of his former players and coaches…and some people he never really knew.
At a clinic in the late Seventies, I sat just outside of his orbit making sure to be seen but not heard. His orbit included the rest of South Carolina’s Football Trinity, Willie Varner and Pinky Babb. They were the archangels of the religion known as Southern football…at least in South Carolina. Together they have 1340 victories. There were other angels at the altar of football but these three men were the most legendary of the legendary and McKissick would eventually fly higher than any with almost half of their total.
In the periphery of his orbit, I scribbled notes, hanging on his every word, hoping to pick up some tidbit to make my Xs better than someone else’s Os. I should have listened more and quit writing notes. For McKissick, as I learned, it was never about Xs and Os, it was about kids. He was never a master strategist; he was a leader of men.
His former players use such descriptors as honest, motivating, inspiring, and inspirational. Some use the greatest descriptor, a father figure. These men speak of life lessons, those he taught and they learned. They speak of how John McKissick was the town and school of Summerville. Not one speaks of Xs and Os.
In an interview in Charleston’s Post and Courier by Gene Sapakoff, Coach McKissick refused to let his light shine when asked the keys to his success. I quote directly from the Post and Courier, “I was in a good place and I was surrounded by good people; coaches, administrators, and some good players,” McKissick said. “I’ve always heard that if you surround yourself with good people who work hard, good things will happen.”
I dare say, it took a special coach to pull it all together and keep it going for sixty-three years.
The old guard was changing before Coach McKissick retired. Babb and Varner had crossed over to their hereafter and many others of the old school had retired. New coaches were lining up to take their places. New legends in waiting…they’ll never be McKissick.
Football, the game, was evolving from a straight-ahead, three yards and a cloud of dust, bust you in the chops game to a more pass-happy, spread you out, finesse rather than smack you in the face game. Honestly, I don’t recognize it sometimes.
I’m sure Coach McKissick changed how he attacked other people’s Os with his Xs but I’m also sure he never changed the way he coached. You don’t have to change the way you coach when you coach kids and not a game.
Rest in peace Coach McKissick, rest in peace.
Featured image from USA Today, (Photo: Associated Press)
Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM