John McKissick: My First Practice

By David Purdum

Old high school football tales are great and John McKissick definitely has a bunch of them.

In 1952, McKissick had just been named head coach at Summerville High School, a South Carolina powerhouse that won consecutive state championships in 1949 and ’50. He called his former coach, Lonnie McMillan of Presbyterian College, to tell him the news and ask for a favor.

“I said, ‘Coach, how about helping me a little bit with practice?’” McKissick recalled. “He said, ‘You don’t know how to practice.’”

McKissick laughed off his coach’s snide remark and met with him to map out a plan. Days later, McKissick arrived at the little practice field behind the Summerville stadium that is now named after him for his first practice as a head coach. He had 32 players, all in full pads, and no assistant coaches.

“That first practice, I looked out there and saw we had this big-ole kid. I said, ‘Man, that’s a big-ole guy.’ I look back at it now and he was 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. He was an offensive and defensive tackle,” said McKissick, who turns 88 in September. “There’s a lot of teaching that goes on in the first practice. But, first of all, you have to let the kids know they’re out there to have fun.”

Sixty-two years, 613 wins and 10 state championships later, it’s pretty clear McKissick knows how to practice. But things have definitely changed.

McKissick remembers practices being more fun for the kids in those days. Most of his players were from area farms and loved to get away from their field work to come to practice. No one ever missed a practice. Parents would complain to the venerable coach, “You’re ruining me, coach.”

His first practice lasted 2 ½ hours. He coached the offense, defense and special teams on his own. The practice opened with calisthenics and included a punting drill and a full-speed, one-on-one tackling drill.

“Back then, you were looking for the ones that would stick their heads in the briar patch,” McKissick said. “You wanted the kids who wouldn’t turn their heads when they hit. We’d never do that stuff these days.”

High school football’s all-time winningest coach, McKissick is looking forward to his 62nd season.

“I’ve always enjoyed getting up and going to work, looked forward to it; never dreaded going to work one day of my life,” McKissick concluded.