SUMMERVILLE, South Carolina (Reuters) - With 613 career wins under his belt, the coach of a small-town South Carolina high school football team has blazed a victory trail unmatched at any level of the American sport.
The record of John McKissick, 87, easily beats that of Florida State University’s Bobby Bowden, who with 377 victories is the coach with the most wins at a major college football program. Coach Don Shula leads the National Football League with 347 career wins.
In terms of high school football, McKissick has had more career wins than any other coach in the country, a distinction he first earned in 1993.
Last Friday, his team at Summerville High School notched another playoff victory for McKissick, who after 62 seasons and 10 state championship titles has no plans to retire.
“I don’t want to retire because I don’t want to die,” he said before a recent game.
The white-haired coach, who sports a large, Super Bowl-type gold ring he was awarded last year for his 600th career victory, gets a lift to games from a friend and recently had his pacemaker replaced.
But he still puts in 40-hour weeks, guiding a third generation of athletes, and says he has not missed a game since he became coach of the Green Wave football program in 1952.
“He has a hard work ethic,” said running back Amadi Becoate, 17. “We have some long practices.”
That time has paid off. Some of McKissick’s players have won football scholarships to college, and eight have played professionally.
Some of the latter even return.
Last summer, Cincinnati Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green visited his alma mater Summerville High School, about 25 miles from historic Charleston, to conduct a clinic for players from around the state.
McKissick’s teams are strangers to defeat, having had only two losing seasons, in 1957 and in 2001, according to his football assistant.
“Our kids expect to win every week,” said assistant offensive line coach Chris Digby. “A lot of that’s because of all the success he’s had.”
McKissick jokes that he hired Digby, who also has a law degree, so that “he can sue the parents if the players don’t play good.”
The coach also likes to teach his young players a broader message.
“I don’t ever just pitch winning,” he said. “I pitch all the other things - behavior, good student, being a gentleman - and if character is there, then the winning will be there.”
The players who sit on the bench learn the best life lessons, said McKissick, who in 2012 was named the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year.
“Life is competitive,” said McKissick, who early in his career turned down offers to coach college football. “To sit on the bench and not be first string, they have to persevere a lot. When they get out in life, they’re going to find out that not everybody’s first string.”
The coach’s love of the game is shared by members of his family. One grandson whom he coached plays for Clemson University, and another is one of 10 assistant coaches of the Summerville High varsity team. McKissick’s 7-year-old great-grandson is a ball boy.
The coach’s wife of 62 years sat high in the stands on a recent Friday night. Joan McKissick has also built an impressive record, having missed only four of her husband’s games during his long career.
“She’s always been a good blocker,” the coach said.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bernadette Baum