Lessons learned from 600 wins

John McKissick, 86, started at Summerville (S.C.) High in 1952

Originally Published: November 28, 2012
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

John McKissickSteve Boyle for ESPN The Magazine"There's no mistaking the great ones," McKissick says of the students he's coached since 1952.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 10 Interview issue. Subscribe today!


The man who's won more football games than anyone else in history folds up his practice notes, zips up his windbreaker and steps out onto the fields behind Summerville (S.C.) High, eager to get to work on win No. 601. Five days earlier, on Oct. 26, John McKissick, 86, reached the 600-win milestone with a victory over rival Ashley Ridge. Since arriving in Summerville in 1952, McKissick has seen every football trend imaginable and produced 10 state titles and several NFL players, including Bengals star receiver A.J. Green, the only player to have his number retired by McKissick. As the spry octogenarian heads to practice now in his custom golf cart, a call comes in from Cincinnati. "It's mind-blowing what you've done," Green tells his former coach. "It was an honor to play for you. Every time I step onto the field in the NFL it's with the mindset I got from you. What has stuck with me through college and where I am today is the passion and winning attitude you still have for football. Be the best every day. Get better now. Don't waste a practice. Don't waste a rep. That's worked for you for 600 wins. I think you should go for 700, Coach." McKissick is visibly moved by the message. But before starting on the next 100 W's, he takes time to share some insights and lessons he's learned in six decades of coaching.


A.J. Green made all-state as a freshman for us in 2004. I said to him, "A.J., you sure have good, soft hands." And he said, "Coach, you don't catch passes with your hands." And I said, "Well, how do you catch 'em then, son?" And he said, "With your eyes." Pretty good little lesson right there.

Shoulda thrown the ball to A.J. on every play. We never would have lost a game.

My wife, Joan, says it, and I say it too: I would retire, but it would look bad after 61 years of marriage to get a divorce.

When I started, kids came out for the high school football team to get out of work. Now football is work.

There's no mistaking the great ones -- they practice just as hard as they play.

First year I coached, 1952, I thought you had to be innovative. We were fixing to play a team from Jasper County with a great middle linebacker who just seemed to make every tackle. So I put two QBs under center and two halfbacks behind each of them and had both quarterbacks spin out after the snap. That middle linebacker, he just stood there flat-footed, dumbfounded, didn't know which way to go, and we took it 70 yards for a touchdown. Officials called it back. Said it was against the rules. I didn't know the rule. I still don't know the rule. That was the last time I tried a gimmick.

Officials. That's the only thing I don't like about this game.

West Coast, the spread, the run 'n shoot, even the A-11 I think is smart. But you do with what you got. That's the first rule of coaching.

Kids are more knowledgeable and worldly now. They've been around the world 10 times a day before practice with all the Internet and television.

One thing that has not changed in 60-some seasons is that kids want discipline and they expect discipline. So we still run a pretty tight ship here. No long hair. No earrings. Oh, I've been challenged on it. I had a judge tell me once, "Coach, if that's your rule, that's your rule, and legally they can't do anything about it. But I gotta tell you, it's an asinine rule."

You can overthink it if you want, but to get to the passer, you've gotta rush six players if all they've got blocking is five.

I was at a coaching clinic at FSU in the mid-1950s when someone told Otto Graham that other QBs throw the ball with more zip. "Yeah, but they catch mine better," he said.

We won 41 straight games and two state titles from 1978 to 1980. That's the longest win streak in South Carolina history. But when I think about those teams, I think more about the guys who made good, is what I call it -- the players who went on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, the ones who used what they learned playing football.

[+] EnlargeJohn McKissick
Steve Boyle for ESPN The MagazineOne thing McKissick doesn't like about the game? The officials.

I've coached 10 state titles in football. I also won a state championship in track, and my team played for a state title in girls hoops. Coaching is teaching.

Your first game is the most exciting. In 1952, we beat Wade Hampton 27-7. After that it's been one game at a time.

I spoke to a local Rotary Club recently. A doctor stood up and said, "Coach, what do you think about all this stuff we're reading and hearing about football and concussions?" And I said, "You're the doctor, you tell me." And he said, "I think it's a bunch of bull." And I said, "Me too."

I hear from mamas who don't want their sons to play football. Not many, but some. And I say, "That's okay, but lots of people get hurt riding their bikes or swinging on the swing." Caution is good. But you can't cut out everything that might be dangerous in life.

I have to agree with the old saying: Football is not a contact sport. Football is a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.

My wife and my daughters love this town. I'd have caught the devil if I ever tried to leave.

Never lie to a parent. Tell them the truth about their kids. It's the best thing you can do for them both, and yourself.

During World War II, I was a paratrooper waiting to go to California with orders to ship out to the Pacific to join the 17th Airborne in battle. But then we dropped the bomb, and everything slowed down. The lives that decision saved or changed & I was one of 'em.

Winning doesn't take care of a lot of things. It takes care of everything.

I've written two books: Called to Coach and Called to Coach II. They're less about the X's and O's and more about the Jerrys and the Joes.

The most important thing about scouting is to look at yourself first and to know your own weaknesses better than your opponent's.

There's always gonna be naysayers. I say, "Look here, did you pay to get in the game?" If they did, then, yeah, I'll take their question. I'll listen ... for a second.

A few years back, someone said, "Uh-oh, our opponent is running that new wildcat offense." I looked at it and said, "That's the single wing. I ran that in high school."

I don't want to call Bear Bryant violent, but he knew football was a violent sport and that to be successful he needed players who'd play that way. But then when I met him, he was one of the nicest people I've ever talked to. Someone asked him about breaking some record and he waved them away and said, "That's not important."

I don't concern myself too much with the question of why America likes football so much. I wonder more about why those European countries like soccer so much.

The secret to life is the same as football: Surround yourself with good people, do what's right and keep your own nose clean.

Time sure does fly.

Football will still be here in 60 years, and it will still be good because it will be about the same things as the last 60: blocking, tackling, running, throwing, executing.

David Fleming interviewed McKissick on Oct. 31, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.