John Messinger, who coached South Charleston High School to back-to-back Class AAA state football championships in 2008 and 2009, died Tuesday night, according to the school. He was 66.
The school announced his passing on Twitter, calling him an “icon in our program.”
The news stunned everyone involved in South Charleston High. Former principal Mike Arbogast said his first thoughts went to Messinger’s wife Jill and his daughters Jordan and Ella, knowing how much the former coach loved his family. South Charleston became part of his family as well.
“John led by example,” Arbogast said. “He was what every educator should be. He had a genuine care and love for these kids.”
Messinger coached the Black Eagles for seven seasons, his only head coaching job. The George Washington High and Marshall graduate compiled a 62-21 record in that time with two state titles. The Black Eagles defeated George Washington 39-8 in the 2008 Super Six and defeated Brooke 28-7 in 2009.
Along the way, he coached a Kennedy Award winner in quarterback-linebacker Tyler Harris (2009), a Hunt Award winner in offensive/defensive lineman Blake Brooks (2009) and a Huff Award winner in linebacker Aaron Slusher (2008).
For Messinger, coaching football was about helping young students grow.
“It’s never been about the X’s and O’s. I’ve always said that,” Messinger said after stepping down from the job in 2012. “I love the game. I love football. But mostly, it’s about the kids. I’ve always tried to stress the importance of being good sons, good citizens and good students.”
Arbogast remembers a vivid example of Messinger’s love for his students. He would work out in the SCHS gym with Messinger and watched him conduct offseason workout sessions with his football players. Messinger would push those players to get stronger and faster.
“He was working their rear ends off,” Arbogast said. “And when they were done with their workout, every kid in that weight room would walk up to him and hug him and say, ‘I love you, Coach Mess.’ And he’d say, ‘I love you, too, kid.’ He’d have 60 kids in there working out and afterward, every one of them would come up and give him a hug.
“He had that magnetism,” Arbogast added. “He was one of those people that kids were drawn to, but it was because he cared about those kids.”
His devotion extended well beyond the locker room, Arbogast said. He was known to buy kids shoes when they needed them, meals when they needed them. If a kid called him stranded somewhere uptown at 1 a.m., Messinger would hop in his truck to pick him up and take him home.
South Charleston athletic director Bryce Casto said that as good of a coach that Messinger was, he always was a teacher first, working with special-needs students at South Charleston. Casto appreciated the bond Messinger built with the entire South Charleston community, saying he was “good to the core.”
“The best compliment I can give any person is that they’re kind,” Casto said. “John Messinger was a kind man.”
Messinger helped resuscitate SC’s football fortunes when he took over in 2006. Between 1996 and 2003, five times the Black Eagles went either 1-9 or 0-10. But they turned the corner in 2005 under coach Vernon Redman, going 9-3 and earning their first playoff berth since the state title-winning season in 1994. Redman stepped down after that season, giving way to Messinger.
Messinger always lauded Redman for setting the table for the program’s success that followed, and for being his mentor in many ways.
“He loved Vernon,’’ Arbogast said.
Arbogast said Messinger had a way about him that attracted young athletes as both players and persons.
“Kids knew he cared about them beyond football and beyond the weight room,’’ Arbogast said. “That’s where it started. They bought into him because he bought into them. They knew he cared about them as people. He gave those kids confidence that made them feel good about themselves. He inspired them and installed that confidence in them not only for being athletes but for being human beings. There’s something to be said for that.’’
Current SC coach Donnie Mays, Messinger’s offensive coordinator who took over the top job when Messinger resigned, tweeted Wednesday that the impact his former boss had on South Charleston High would never be forgotten.
“Coach Mess was an amazing man,” Mays wrote. “He loved his family deeply. When he took over the Black Eagles all his players became his 2nd family. He loved each of them deeply & pushed them to levels they didn’t know they could achieve. I learned a lot from him and he will be missed.”
After he stepped down as SC coach, Messinger in early 2015 opened the Holley Strength System, a training and conditioning gym off the Davis Creek exit of Corridor G. The gym was named after the old Holley Hotel on Quarrier Street in downtown Charleston, as some of the weights used in the basement gym of that hotel were purchased by Messinger.
Messinger was a former competitive powerlifter who won 28 state championships and five national championships.
He was inducted into the GW Football Hall of Fame during a ceremony in the Patriots’ Sept. 13 home game against Huntington. He was a captain of the 1973 GW team.
Funeral arrangements are not yet complete, but Messinger is expected to be buried in Clarksburg. A candlelight vigil is also being planned at SC High School.