|In this Oct. 24, 2012 photo, Summerville High School coach John McKissick coaches his team during practice in Summerville, S.C|
AP National Writer
So much football, so many great story lines, both college and pros. Georgia knocks Florida from the ranks of the unbeaten. Notre Dame keeps Irish eyes smiling. The Atlanta Falcons romp to their seventh straight win.
Yet, none of those compare to the biggest gridiron news of the weekend.
Not even close.
In South Carolina, a prep coach was carried off the field the other night with his 600th career victory.
The number is staggering, almost beyond belief. When John McKissick took over at Summerville High School, Harry Truman was wrapping up his term as president and Jim Crow was still the norm in the former Confederacy.
McKissick has coached through integration, the Vietnam War and 9/11, through flower power and disco and hip-hop, through boom boxes and Walkmans and iPhones.
To reach such an epic number, he had to average 10 wins a year for 60 years, which is impressive enough. But what’s even more astounding, he managed to remain relevant from one generation to the next, staying true to his values – a strong running game and stout defense are always a winning combination – even while the world around him was changing at breakneck speed.
We can count up his wins, but we can’t possibly come up with a tally on all the lives McKissick touched along the way.
“Time flies, doesn’t it?” he says.
He’s 86 now, far beyond the age when most of his contemporaries have taken to a rocking chair, if they’re still around at all.
Clearly, he’s not big on change himself. He’s been in the same job since 1952, been married to the same woman, Joan, for about the same amount of time. Surely there were chances to move up to a higher-profile gig or at least move on, but he was always happy where he was. He was content to mold young minds and bodies, to give them a better chance to succeed before they headed off to sell insurance or drive a bulldozer or even to play in the NFL.
“Congrats to coach on his 600th win,” tweeted a former player, Cincinnati Bengals star receiver A.J. Green, after Summerville’s latest victory. “One of the best ever!!!”
One of the best, indeed.
Beyond the Xs and Os, there are lessons we all should heed. It’s not always necessary to keep striving for bigger and better. Contentment is not a bad thing, as long as we’re always striving to be our best.
That’s how McKissick has lived, guiding the Green Wave to 10 state titles while missing out on the fame of coaching at some big-time university or in the NFL. Much like the character George Bailey in the classic holiday movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” he might just be the richest coach on the planet even though his bank account can’t possibly match up to someone like Alabama’s Nick Saban (who, by the way, is 431 wins behind McKissick).
John T. Curtis Jr., coach of the John Curtis Christian School in Louisiana, has 513 wins. St. John’s (Minn.) coach John Gagliardi is the college leader with 487 victories while Don Shula holds the professional mark with 347 wins.
“I look forward to getting up every morning and coming into work,” the Summerville coach says. “If I didn’t do it, I don’t know what I’d do. I like golf, but I don’t play that much. I never was real good at it.”
Most of us strive for that day when we can quit whatever we’re doing, perhaps the thing we do best, and just do nothing. But McKissick never even talks about retirement, giving him a sense of purpose that is missing in the lives of so many senior citizens. Bear Bryant lasted barely a month after retiring as Alabama’s coach. Who knows how many years McKissick added to his life because he’s always had a place to go every morning?
Sure, there comes a time when we just can’t do the job we once did. Our bodies break down. Our minds struggle to keep up. Even McKissick has heard grumbling around his town of 44,000 from those who think it’s time for someone younger to take over, who aren’t thrilled that the Green Wave is going on 14 years since its last state title.
“Every now and then, you’ll have one who says, ‘Hey, coach, you’re getting too old.’ I’ll have one stop me and stay, ‘Y’all are awful, coach,”’ McKissick says. “My answer to them is always, ‘Did you buy a ticket to get in? ... If you bought a ticket, say whatever you want but don’t get personal. If you didn’t buy a ticket, go on and get out.”’
He starts to chuckle.
“That’s how I handle it.”
McKissick had a heart scare a few years ago, prompting him to get a pacemaker. He doesn’t jog around the practice fields very often, scooting around on a golf cart. Mindful of his limitations, he’s passed off many of his coaching duties to his assistants. He is grateful for their service, for caring as much about Summerville High as he does.
“When you have that, you don’t have any fussing,” he says. “We don’t fuss at each other, just talk, and they respect what I think and I respect what they do.”
Summerville got off to a rough start this season, winning just two of its first six games. But the Green Wave bounced back with a four-game winning streak, capped by a 37-21 win over rival Ashley Ridge that gave McKissick his latest milestone Friday night.
Not that he’s keeping count.
He prefers to keep looking toward the future, not living in the past.
“Well, you know, as a football coach, I count one at a time,” McKissick says. “It’s another win, and if it totals up to 600, that’s great. I feel good for the kids. I feel good for the boys. They tell everyone they were part of the 600th. I think they will be proud of that.”
Who knows? Maybe some youngster in Summerville is just picking up a football for the first time. Maybe, a decade or so from now, he’ll be the one who helps McKissick get win No. 700.
Don’t bet against it.