SAPAKOFF COLUMN: John McKissick, 85, will dig Summerville High School out of a rare football hole
SUMMERVILLE — The 85-year-old man was ready, answering the tough questions upon introduction.
WHO: Wando (4-0) at Summerville (1-2)
WHEN: 7 p.m.
“They say I'm too old,” the winningest head coach in high school football history said. “They say the old man needs to go.”
Really? They say that?
On the flower-lined streets of Summerville?
“They don't really tell me that, not directly,” McKissick said inside his Summerville High School office. “But I'm figuring people are thinking that.”
Some, yes. Summerville is 1-2 going into tonight's televised home game against formidable Wando (7:30 p.m. / WMMP-TV).
The Green Wave slippage is hard to ignore: 11-2 in 2009, 10-3 in 2010, 8-5 in 2011. Summerville is coming off a 49-14 loss to defending state champion Goose Creek.
McKissick, a Kingstree native, is in his 61st season at Summerville. He is 595-143 with 10 state championships. The first victory came in 1952 against Hampton-Varnville.
He wears one ring.
“Jostens gave this to me after my 500th win,” McKissick said, pointing to the sparkling and unprecedented number on his left hand. “It might take me six more years to get my 600th.”
He smiled. But the joke is on opponents that think McKissick has lost his zeal, or that Summerville won't bounce back. Maybe not tonight against Wando — the undefeated Warriors are on a roll. Maybe not this season — a freshman quarterback and inexperienced defensive line often mean slow starts.
Ready to fight
But Summerville's general slump since going 13-2 in Cincinnati Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green's senior year in 2007 is no mystery: McKissick doesn't have those old numbers — school enrollment advantage and relative talent pool — that contributed to past success.
“It's still Summerville,” senior linebacker Adam Blocker said. “We're just not winning state championships but we're still playing good, the tradition is still here, the coaches are still on us all the time, we're still watching film. The program is still here. We just don't have the top athletes right now.”
Talent comes in cycles. McKissick just keeps showing up for work. More than spry and beyond alert, he appears able to whip men 30 or 40 years younger in, say, a fist fight.
Coaching and gardening.
“It was smoking hot out there this summer,” Blocker said, “and he was out there walking around and yelling at us.”
Said senior offensive lineman Grant Wactor: “Whenever I'm at a football camp, I get asked, 'So does Coach McKissick actually coach, or does he just sit in his office and wait for y'all to come back in from practice?'
“He's always out there. I don't think he's ever missed a practice. I don't think there's anything that would make him miss a practice.”
'Everybody's best game'
McKissick plans to keep coaching as long as he's healthy.
“A lot of my buddies my age, and some a little bit younger, when they retired they were gone,” he said. “You need to have a purpose besides just staying home.”
It's not retirement that scares McKissick, but the next thing.
“Yeah,” said McKissick, who turns 86 later this month. “Well, I'm not afraid of that. But, sure, you think about it.”
So he keeps fighting, breaking down Wando videotape, yelling at cornerbacks.
“I feel like that we're playing hard enough to start winning,” McKissick said. “I was disappointed with the outcome at Goose Creek, but I was not disappointed with our effort. If you get behind, you're not going to sit on it if you're competitive. But if we keep playing hard, we're going to do pretty good because I think we have some good kids.”
Wando parents will take lots of pictures tonight, win or lose, making sure Summerville symbols are in the background.
“We get everybody's best game,” Blocker said. “Every team wants to beat Summerville. I've never played anywhere else, but I have to think this is totally different than playing anywhere else.”
Summerville players are aware that John McKissick has had only two losing seasons, 1957 and 2001. They aim toward No. 600, convinced their coach/gardener is just the guy to dig them out of an early hole.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or Twitter @sapakoff.