The first thing that Joe Call touched in his new office was a steel water canteen he found sitting on what was to be his new desk.
“Does this come with the place?” he asked aloud as he surveyed the otherwise empty room.
He ran his hands across the arms of his new chair and leaned into the fit of the cushion for the first time. He held the canteen straight out in front of him with both hands to better admire the school’s oval logo on it — not the green and gold oval he’s used to. But wasn’t that kind of the point of this?
“I like the feel of this place,” he decided with a few nods of approval.
“Yeah,” he confirmed to himself.
“This feels right.”
Call will be introduced on Monday as the head football coach of Oceanside Collegiate, a budding public charter school in its fourth year on the north side of Mount Pleasant.
Call has spent the past five years as head coach at nearby Summerville, going 28-10 the past three seasons, including a trip to the AAAAA Lower State title game in 2018.
“Joe Call is the total package,” Oceanside Principal Brenda Corley said. “He’s respected in the community for more than winning football games and that was important to us. He’s someone that can usher this program and this family into its next chapter.”
The Summerville football program is among the most storied and more respected in the state and, honestly, probably far further still. Call has committed nearly his entire life to it. He was a Green Wave ball boy in the 1980s. He was a quarterback in the '90s. He spent 12 years as an assistant coach at Summerville before he was promoted to succeed his grandfather John McKissick, the winningest football coach in the history of the game.
Call idolized his grandfather as a child. He’d wear McKissick’s bucket hats before they even really fit his head. He would drape his yellow jacket over his shoulders and mimic the motions of the 10-time state champion coach. If McKissick ever couldn’t find his whistle, chances were he knew which grandchild might be twirling it around his finger.
“We had thousands of conversations that I’ll never forget,” Call said. “So much of my career at Summerville was a tribute to what I learned from him.”
McKissick lobbied for Call to be Summerville's next head coach even before he retired in 2015 after his 63rd season in charge of the Green Wave. Call made the most sense because while he respected the tradition and legacy, he could still overhaul what McKissick admitted had become an outdated culture. Summerville went 4-8 with Call as an interim coach in 2015. The Green Wave has gone 34-16 since, improving each of Call’s first four seasons leading toward a run to the state semifinals two years ago.
“He’s proven he can handle a job that's as big as any in the state,” Oceanside athletics director Mark Meyer said. “The expectations for someone like him at Summerville couldn't have been easy."
There was immeasurable honor in Call following his grandfather. That unique honor also cast an inescapable shadow that Call knew he'd never outrun.
Call struggled mightily with McKissick's passing in November. It took him weeks to find peace. He fell into an uncomfortable space, heartbroken and unsure how to proceed. In the past, Call would've just asked his grandfather for advice. It was the first time in the 40-year-old's life that his mentor wasn't there for guidance. Call had been chasing the unattainable for most of his life. McKissick's passing felt like some sort of finish line of what'd been a lifelong marathon.
“It felt like a chapter had passed. It was almost felt like the completion of an education,” Call said. “It was if he was there next to me everyday until he thought I was ready to do my own thing. I knew my time at Summerville was coming to an end. A page was turning. I wanted to do what was right and step out of the way.”
Call bought a house in December in north Mount Pleasant within just a few miles of Oceanside and also Wando, the largest high school in the state. He officially resigned at Summerville in February, about a week after Jimmy Noonan stepped down as head coach at Wando. Lucy Beckham, a new AA-sized school opening in Mount Pleasant in August, was also looking for a head coach.
Although he did eventually interview with Wando, Call says now that he had no immediate plans to apply to either school at the time of his resignation. He was surprised to read a newspaper headline to the contrary. He actually considered, for the first time in almost 20 years, he might do something other than coach football in the fall.
“We took a leap of faith coming to Mount Pleasant and trusted that God would lead us in the right direction,” Call said. “Whether that meant coaching right away or not.”
The Oceanside job wasn’t open at the time. Chad Grier had just led the Sharks to the AA Lower State championship game and was 27-7 in three years as head coach.
“Joe and I have always had a mutual respect for each other,” Grier said in March. “When I found out he’d moved over here I told him, 'Come by and check us out sometime.' I knew he’d never been here.”
Call accepted Grier's invitation along with his wife, Elizabeth, on a whim one night after dinner. Oceanside's boys basketball team was playing Woodland in the second round of the state playoffs. The Calls stayed for the game, toured the school and the weight room. They met some of the faculty and a few of the students.
“It was the people, I think, that impressed me the most,” Call said. “The energy was great. Everyone was so supportive of each other. It was refreshing.”
Grier stepped down in March to accept the head job at Providence Day, a reigning state champion in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C. Hundreds from several different states applied for the opening for which Call was already a favorite within the school's search committee. Interest quickly became mutual.
“At the end of the day, you need to do what's best for these kids and I understand that,” Call said as he walked out of his interview at Oceanside.
“That always kind of stuck with me that he got that part of it,” Corley said. “We met a lot of great people throughout this process but we just kept coming back to Coach Call.”
Public charter schools are a relatively new concept in South Carolina athletics. Oceanside has become a target of traditionalists as its teams, and schools like it, have grown increasingly successful. There's an obvious divide between the two schools of thought. Call understands the current perception. He expects people from his hometown, as traditional of a town as you'll find, will question the way he's embracing the more progressive model. His ties to the former, however, may be helpful in bridging the gap toward the latter, both he and the school hope.
“I think a lot of people fear what’s unfamiliar to them,” Call said. “I had to do a lot of research myself. And what I found were great kids who were extremely motivated and understood what it takes to win. That's all I need right now. I think this is something that as more people become familiar with it, more people are going to want to be a part of it.”
Like Call, who even a year ago would’ve never imagined the partnership.
He hopes to keep the Landsharks' current football staff mostly intact. But there are a few openings — defensive coordinator, for instance — and Call has a couple names in mind that he hopes might be interested in joining him on this side of town.
Call is familiar with what he believes to be an unfair perception that football in Mount Pleasant and its neighboring communities can't be successful. Bishop England is the only school in the immediate area to ever play for a state championship, an area that competes regularly for state titles in nearly every other sport. Call stirred up memories of the battles he's had with Wando as evidence to the contrary and says Oceanside's emergence has helped to further curb that stigma.
Call sees rare opportunity at Oceanside. The groundwork, sometimes the toughest part of running a football team, has already been laid. The program is still ripe enough, though, to be crafted into something of his own. He never really had, and would likely never have had, the chance to have the same formative impact at a school as established as Summerville.
"Oceanside is really still in its infancy," Call said. "(Grier) established that winning culture. Now where can we take it from here? I want people outside of our state to see that O logo and recognize Oceanside the way people in our state already are. Let's build it. Let's blow it through the roof."
The canteen Call found on his desk is decorated with a curled ribbon. The bottle is white. The oval Oceanside O is blue. A gift tag around the neck is blank. There is no owner in sight. Why would there be though? This is his office.
“I think I’m going to take this with me,” Call said as he made his way toward the door with his new canteen. That’s probably allowed, Coach.
“Since this is home now," he tells himself one more time before turning off the lights and closing the door behind him.