John McKissick has not been around long enough to have received letters of commendation from George Washington or Abe Lincoln.
However, the legendary Summerville (S.C.)
football coach has received those letters from such later U.S. presidents as Jimmy Carter (1977), Ronald Reagan (1987), Bill Clinton (1993) and George W. Bush (2004).
"He might be the last living American to shake hands with Winston Churchill (famed prime minister of Great Britain)," according to Billy Baker, a former Summerville student and longtime publisher of South Carolina High School Sports Report who has written two books about him.
Baker noted that when McKissick was a youngster, he skipped school one day to meet Churchill.
McKissick, who will turn 85 on Sept. 25, is beginning his 60th season at Summerville, giving him the greatest longevity as a football coach at any level – high school, college or professional. In addition, he has won more games (586) than any football coach at any level, leading MaxPreps' list of the winningest active coaches
. He has 138 losses and 13 ties. Ten times he has won state championships and his teams once put together a 41-game winning streak.
The Green Wave has had just two losing seasons under McKissick. They posted a 1-8-1 record in 1957 and a 5-7 record in 2001.
"I remember those more than the wins," he laughed.
He has missed just one game during his amazing career. Actually, he attended the game, but had to sit in the stands due to a one-game suspension.
"I threw my cap (over a referee's call)," he said sheepishly.
The living legend was named National Football Coach of the Year in 1980, 1994 and 2003. He was inducted into the National Federation High School Hall of Fame in 1990. His teams have been playing home games since 1987 in a stadium that bears his name.
McKissick has sent numerous players to colleges and eight of them have reached the NFL. The pros are brothers Stanford and Keith Jennings, Mark Slawson, Fred Worthy, Kevin Long, Ian Rafferty, Jamar Nesbitt and A.J. Green.
He continues to win even though two other high schools have been built over the years in the Summerville area. When he started in 1952 at the princely salary of $2,700, Summerville had 296 students. Today it has 3,200 students and is the third-largest school in the state.
Realizing he needs just 14 wins to crack the magical 600 barrier, McKissick quipped, "It might take me 14 years. No, I'm going for 587 (the opener is Aug. 26). You've got to do one at a time. That's always been my philosophy. If it totals out to something nice, that's good."
McKissick received a pacemaker in 2005, but his health hasn't prevented him from much.
"It seems to be OK. I have a physical every three months."
Baker left no doubt about who is in charge when he said, "He still is in full command of the football team. He makes all the major decisions about personnel."
The Green Wave's 10-man coaching staff includes all but two members who once played for McKissick. Those two, however, have been with him a total of 59 years.
John and Joan (his wife of 59 years) have two daughters and all three of their grandsons – Joe and Richard Call and Donny McElveen - have played for him. Joe Call and McElveen were quarterbacks, while Richard Call was a linebacker.
Joe Call, in fact, is starting his ninth year as an assistant coach, now serving as offensive coordinator. He learned early on that McKissick was "coach" on the field. He called him "granddad" and had to run some extra laps that night.
"It's not a bit different," Joe Call said about coaching at his alma mater. "The beauty of what we have going at Summerville is that there has been very little change. Every time a new school opens they tell us we're not supposed to win. He tells us coaches, ‘If you guys wake up in the morning and aren't loving what you do, you better quit.'
"Somebody doing something that long, I can't imagine. My wife says, ‘You don't plan to do this for another 50 years do you?'''
John McKissick grew up in a strong Christian home. His father, Harry McKissick, was a Sunday School superintendent and his grandfather, Eli McKisskick, was a Methodist minister as well. His wife's father was a Baptist minister.
His family attended a Methodist Church service at 11 a.m. every Sunday, followed by a Baptist Church service at 1 p.m. There was no lunch until the second service was over.
"It's helped a lot," John McKissick said. "I say a prayer sometimes (before a game), but it's only to play with our ability and that no one gets hurt. I don't pray to win."
He had to really love football, because his father thought it was a waste of time and wanted him to work, growing up in the Great Depression. Fortunately, his mother enabled him to follow his heart as a 5-foot-10, 155-pound seventh-grade fullback in Kingstree, S.C.
Still, his parents never attended any of his games until he reached college. He graduated from Presbyterian College (Clinton, S.C.) in 1951 with a degree in economics. Continue reading