Jim Matney: Mountain legend, mountain mover

Jim Matney was a mountain lover and a mountain mover.

He turned a stereotype into a strength, making his mountain men believe they could knock down any wall put in front of them. And they did. Johnson Central High School has become a household name in Kentucky high school football circles, a yearly contender that must be handled.

Matney did it by being three-in-one: part-coach, part-philosopher, and part-motivator. He was a father figure to many of his players and a life coach to all of them. He told them life was tough and you make your own way. Nobody is giving you anything, he would say.

They listened and then they played like starving dogs.

Matney won with a brute-like style of punishing play, using the size of these mountain boys to their own advantage. His running backs all ran with an almost angry edge to them. You didn’t tackle them without feeling it. Their defense was equally physical with a similar edge of I’m-better-than-you football.

The 62-year-old Matney, who died Tuesday after a month-long battle with COVID-19 complications, is a mountain legend and a hero to many there. Everybody expected him to beat even this battle with COVID, especially his players. But this pandemic, as we’ve learned, is unforgiving and no respecter of person.

Matney guided the Golden Eagles to five consecutive state championship game appearances from 2015 and 2019, winning in 2016 and 2019, with the last one, a 21-20 victory over Boyle County in a battle of undefeated Class 4A titans, maybe being the highlight of a brilliant coaching career that amassed 310 victories.

Jim Matney celebrates his last championship in 2019 as Johnson Central edged Boyle County, 21-20. (Photo by Kevin Goldy/ADI)

Before Johnson Central played Boyle County at Kroger Field in 2019, he was given a stone from a stream in the valley of Elah, where the Bible says in 1 Samuel 17 that David slew Goliath. That rock sits in a box with the championship trophy from that perfect season in a bulging trophy case at the high school.

Jim Matney gets the cold water treatment after his first state title in 2015, a 48-0 win over Franklin-Simpson. (Kevin Goldy/ADI)

He told his players they could defeat any foe, including ones from northern Kentucky. Don’t listen to what everybody was telling them. Listen to me, he would say. I believe in you, he would tell them. You’re going to win.

Matney was a master motivator who used anything and everything to his advantage. Eventually, winning became a culture and so did winning championships. Anything less wasn’t enough.

It was also important to be the best team on the block or, in Johnson Central’s case, the best one in northeastern and eastern Kentucky. They took on all-comers although the invitations weren’t accepted. Nobody wanted to play this powerhouse that offered no apologies and often showed little mercy.

He was competitiveness personified and it carried over to his teams. For whatever reason, few teams brought out the fire in Matney like the Ashland Tomcats. Maybe it was because of the Tomcats’ tradition or that he was once passed over to be the Ashland coach.

But mention the name Tomcats and Matney would be at another competitive level where his blood was boiling.

He met Ashland once as a player when he was a junior at Belfry in 1975 and the JAWS Tomcats came to town and sank the Pirates, 47-6. Maybe he remembered that too.

Matney was 3-1 against Ashland as the coach at Sheldon Clark, including a 48-0 shellacking in 2000 that the Tomcats avenged with a 42-0 romp in 2001. Bad blood was brewing, Matney also won games with the Cardinals in 1999 by a score of 14-0 and again in 2002 by a 28-26 count.

Matney was 15-3 against Ashland from 2005 to 2018 as the head coach at Johnson Central including 4-0 in the playoffs. There were some heartbreaking losses for Ashland, including 28-21 in 2006 in the playoffs, 22-21 in 2012 and 8-7 in 2015 in one of the most physical games I’ve ever watched. But a large portion of the series was one-sided for Johnson Central including games where they scored 67, 51, 54, 50, 48 and 47.

Even though he seemed to play with a chip on his shoulder against the Tomcats, he had respect for them and spoke often about the tremendous coaching staff. He told me several times that he’d love to have Tony Love on the Johnson Central coaching staff. Matney loved to compete so maybe that’s why he loved playing Ashland.

Matney’s stronghold over the Tomcats made Johnson Central the toughest kid on the block and he liked that.

The news of his death on Tuesday sent shockwaves around the state although daily reports of his struggle while sedated and on a ventilator were shared on social media. He started becoming ill after Johnson Central defeated Henry Clay on Aug. 20 in Lexington and suffered a stroke while being transported from Paintsville to Cabell Huntington the following week.

Then he fought, just like he fought as a football and wrestling coach and how he did as an athlete playing everything at Belfry. By the way, he was an even better wrestling coach, if you can imagine that, than football. Sheldon Clark won two state titles and he coached 30 individual champions at Sheldon Clark and Johnson Central.

Jim Matney and I were friends. He’d call me at the office just to talk sometimes (and maybe to find out what I knew about the Tomcats). Even though I was no longer covering sports fulltime at the newspaper after moving into the editor’s chair, we stayed in touch. He even invited me to have lunch with him at Texas Roadhouse in Ashland at least three times where, after sharing a meal, he slipped me an envelope with a sizeable donation in it to Amy For Africa, a ministry I’ve been involved with for eight years. He was always helping kids, even ones halfway around the world.

Rick Sang, a friend of mine who operates the Ray Guy Prokicker.com school for punters, kickers and long-snappers, worked with some Johnson Central kickers. When he was working with the kickers, somebody had to chase the footballs. That would be Jim Matney. If he could help a kid, he did.

Through Jim’s successes, I was able to meet his wife Debby, a lovely lady whose heart has to be broken. The Matneys have two sons, Dalton and Carson. They came along after many years of trying. Dalton was born on Nov. 10, 2006, the same night the Golden Eagles stunned Ashland 28-21 in the playoffs. Carson was born four years later.

The Johnson Central-Ashland game that year was a thriller, but Matney’s true thrill of that day came in the hospital room. When the game was over, a game that the Golden Eagles won on a double-reverse pass with 11 seconds remaining, Matney’s only thoughts were to call his wife and check on the baby.

He pulled out the cell phone and made the call, but the signal wasn’t strong enough. Debbie, who had been listening to the game in the hospital with nurses, was trying to call him, too.

“When I got to the hospital later that night, nurses were congratulating me about the game,” the coach said. “They knew all about it but I didn’t know how they did.”

Another patient in the hospital in a room near Debby was listening to the game from his room.

It wasn’t love at first sight for Debby and Jim Matney, but only because she was in disguise. She first met her husband-to-be at a Sheldon Clark Cardinals football game when she was “mascot substituting.”

Jim was scouting for Belfry at the time.

“My mother said, ‘There’s a cute guy up there’ and I went up and aggravated him. He didn’t know it was me; he didn’t even know me.”

Three years later Jim Matney moved to Sheldon Clark and became the coach and met her again – this time without the disguise.

“She told me she was the one in the mascot uniform,” he told me.

They eventually married and she followed her husband’s successful career from Sheldon Clark to Johnson Central. Life was good until this vicious pandemic.

Matney was an all-around good athlete at Belfry where he played football, basketball, baseball and wrestled before going to Liberty University on a wrestling scholarship.

Bobby Norman, who calls Belfry games on the radio, shared a tribute of telling his father of Jim’s passing Tuesday. Pastor Bob Norman, his father, was the Belfry team chaplain and led Jim to Christ and baptized him in high school. Bob has Alzheimer’s or dementia now, but when his son told him about Matney’s death, he cried.

It’s understandable. A lot of us did the same.

Billy Ray Jennings, point guard on ’53 Tomcats, dies at 86

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Billy Ray Jennings, the point guard on one of Ashland’s greatest teams in the 1950s, died August 14.

Jennings, 86, was a dynamo with the basketball on the 1952-53 Tomcat team that went 28-4 and carried a No. 1 state ranking into the Sweet Sixteen before being stunned by Paducah Tilghman, 46-44, in the opening round.

Billy Ray Jennings

Jennings played on the same team as Tomcat greats Earl “Brother” Adkins, Bob Emrick and Jerry Henderson. He was an all-district, all-region and honorable mention All-State selection as a senior.

Playing for coach George Conley, Jennings was the playmaker and helped set up Adkins for a season where he scored 20.9 points per game. Emrick averaged 14.5 and Jennings followed at 11.3. from Jennings, who scored a team-high 23 in a record-smashing 112-49 victory over Vanceburg in the 16th Region championship game.

The Tomcats were big favorites in the Sweet Sixteen opener, but Paducah slowed the pace and pulled off the upset. Jennings scored 10 in that loss. Ashland went into the state tournament having won 16 of 17 games. They defeated then No. 1 Inez, 70-55, and No. 9 Newport and No. 10 Clark County. The losses were to Inez, then fifth ranked, 77-71, Flaget 59-58 in the Louisville Invitational Tournament and Hindman 57-54.

Billy Ray’s mother, Mildred was the official basketball scorekeeper at the table for Tomcat games for years, sitting alongside Ernie Chattin, the timer.

The 1953 team is regarded by many as one of best in Tomcat history. Jim Host, who was a manager on team and helped with practices for Coach Conley, has long said it is the most talented team ever assembled at Ashland. Adkins went on to play at the University of Kentucky and Emrick and Henderson earned scholarships to Florida.

Jennings played basketball at Ohio Wesleyan but he is best known as a Methodist pastor. He became a Christian and felt a calling to ministry at a revival at his home church, Ashland First Methodist.

He changed his name to Bill in college and seminary at Duke, but his hometown always knew him as Billy Ray or “Squirt.” Jennings was married to Connie Lewis in 1958 and during their honeymoon night he preached at a revival service. Jennings was an ordained Methodist pastor in the Kentucky Conference and served several congregations including as an associate at his home church, First Methodist.

He suffered a stroke in July and that led to his health downfall and eventual death.

A service honoring Jennings will take place at noon on Aug. 28 at Southern Hills United Methodist with visitation from 10 a.m. to noon at the church.

Emotional day for inductees into CP-1 Hall of Fame

ASHLAND, Ky. – Under a God-kissed sky, the sixth class of the CP-1 Ashland Baseball Hall of Fame was inducted Saturday afternoon.

With the gorgeous freshly trimmed diamond at their backs, the class of 10 was enshrined to bring it to 70 since the hall of fame started in 2015. About a half dozen former hall of famers (Drew Hall, Jody Hamilton, Bill Lynch, Bob Lynch, Mike Smith, Dave Staten, Ed Radjunas) joined a nice crowd of about 90 family and friends of the inductees.

They talked about father-and-son moments, lessons learned from coaches and the fun they had playing baseball with teammates. Players and coaches were among the inductees who have waited since learning they were going into the CP-1 Hall of Fame in December 2019. The pandemic postponed last August’s ceremony, so they had to wait an extra year for their time in the sun.

But if they were anxious or nervous, it never showed. Everybody who spoke, including two who talked on behalf of inductees, were succinct and relevant. They had the appreciative crowd eating out of their hands.

There were themes to the group that also included one of the best-known players ever to step foot on the diamond. Wilson Barrow, one of the hardest-throwing pitchers the area has ever known, was taking his place in the hall. He was so excited after learning about the induction, said his nephew Charlie Johnson, who spoke for him. Mr. Barrow passed away in November 2020.

Charlie said he remembered the excitement his uncle showed after receiving a call from Bob Lynch that he was going to be an honoree. “He said, ‘Guess who called? Bob with the Hall of Fame!’ I’ve never seen him so happy.”

The other inductees: Scott Crank, Mike Delaney, Bryan Finkbone, Bill Hammond, French Harmon, Jon Hart, Cabot Keesey, Mark Moore and Mike Tussey.

Delaney’s message was heartfelt and emotional as he spoke about his father, 90-year-old John Delaney who was not only on hand for the ceremony but was on the field later having a catch with his son like they’d done a million times before.

Hart talked about his father, too, who had passed only a couple of months ago. He was able to share with his dad the news that he was going into the Hall of Fame.

Four coaches – Delaney, Hammond, Harmon and Tussey – spoke about experiences with players and sometimes umpires. Harmon talked about the importance of being part of a team and how that team ca become like family. Hammond was known to fight for his players even to the point of almost going to jail after becoming irate with an umpire. Tussey told that story and how he was able to speak with the law enforcement to give him another. They did, Hammond behaved and the Ashland All-Star team won a game in Mt. Sterling.

It was story after story but it always circled back to Central Park’s No. 1 diamond – CP-1.

The inductees shared stories about each other, including Keesey remembering an absolute fit that Finkbone threw on umpire Clyde Chinn in a Little League game on the 22nd Street diamond. Keesey tried the same kind of fit in a Babe Ruth game, slinging his helmet after being called out at the plate by the aforementioned Chinn, who threw him out of the game before Keesey could celebrate going “Finkbone” on him for one second.

Several players were emotional and had to pause lest they broke into tears. It was raw and real. Hammond mentioned how proud his father would have been of him. Grown men showing raw emotions is what makes the CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremony show special.

Six of the inductees played for former Tomcat baseball coach Frank Sloan, who couldn’t attend the ceremony but send a message to the players about how proud he was not only of their ability but their character. Several of them talked about the important role Sloan played in their lives.

Harmon was another influential coach and mentor who turned baseball lessons into life lessons. He taught them what it meant to care for each other. He was a counselor to many and coached some of the greats in the area, including future Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb with the Ashland Athletics.

Tussey coached players on every level and also broadcast baseball games from Central Park. He also put together a powerhouse Stan Musial team made up of college players from throughout the area and Paintsville. They were state champions in 1988 with a 32-7 record.

Moore is the all-time veteran player, compiling 18 seasons overall throughout his career. He was known for being the “Cal Ripken of Ashland, a real ironman who never missed a game in nine seasons,” Tussey said.

Moore told on himself about how he and Keesey made sure Sloan’s torturous practice balls didn’t make it home from Morehead on a bus ride. The hard-shelled balls were like Super Balls, he said, and were hated by the players. When told Sloan may be watching a livestream, he said, “Oh, well, sorry coach! Now you know what happened to those balls.”

Former Hall of Farmer Rick Reeves pinch-hit and spoke for Crank, who is one of Ashland’s greatest all-around athletes. Reeves talked about how Crank could do anything on the baseball field or any other field. “He was just a great athlete, one of the best I’ve ever been around,” he said.

CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremony set for Saturday afternoon

ASHLAND, Ky. – It has been a long wait for the Ashland baseball CP-1 Hall of Fame class of 2020.

Last year’s ceremony was postponed because of COVID-19, but it’s back on for Saturday beside the big diamond at Central Park.

For those wanting to make a weekend of it, the Ashland Tomcats open defense of their 2020 state football championship on Friday against Raceland in Putnam Stadium.

On Saturday at 1 p.m., the inductees will have the stage in a ceremony that begins at 1 p.m. The class has memorable players and incredible coaches who have given much to Ashland baseball.

It promises to be an emotional ceremony for the inductees and their families. Sadly, one of the inductees, Wilson Barrow, passed away last fall. He was considered one of the best athletes to ever play on the park field. His nephew, Charlie Johnson, will represent him.

The 10-member class will bring the total in the CP-1 Hall of Fame to 70.

Here is a look at the inductees:

The sixth class of the CP-1 Ashland Baseball Hall of Fame will be inducted on Saturday in Central Park.

-Wilson Barrow, who played in Ashland’s inaugural Little League season in 1955, could make the mitt pop like few others who ever played in the park. Barrow’s fastball was compared to how Bill Lynch and Don Gullett threw later in the decade.

-Scott Crank was one of Ashland’s best three-sport athletes. He starred in football (quarterback), basketball (point guard) and baseball (shortstop) for the Tomcats in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was a clutch hitter and slick-fielding shortstop for the Tomcats and Post 76.

-Mike Delaney is going in for his longtime coaching role with Post 76, basically keeping the program alive, but he was an outstanding player in his own rights as a middle infielder in the mid-1970s for the Ashland Tomcats and Post 76.

-Bryan Finkbone was the consummate leadoff hitter and the sparkplug for the Tomcats in the mid-1970s. His speed made him a pest for opposing pitchers who had a hard time keeping him off the bases. His all-out style made him a favorite with teammates.

-Bill Hammond has coached at CP-1 for many summers and continues as a co-coach with Delaney for Post 76. He was also a standout pitcher for the Tomcats and Post 76 in the mid-1970s and became an outstanding teacher of the pitching craft.

-French Harmon was a solid contributor as a player for the Tomcats in the late 1970s, but it was his coaching skills that make him a CP-1 Hall of Famer. He was a Tomcat assistant coach led a Connie Mack League resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s and taught baseball and life lessons to his players.

-Jon Hart’s smooth swing made him a feared hitter for the Tomcats, Post 76, Stan Musial and Marshall University. If he didn’t beat you with his bat, he’d do it with the glove. Hart was one of the top all-around players wherever he played in his career.

-Cabot Keesey spanned the late 1970s and early 1980s and was a pure hitter who swung the bat as well as anyone along with being a strong defensive player who played nearly everywhere during his playing career with the Tomcats, Post 76 and Stan Musial.

-Mark Moore played for the Tomcats and Post 76 and then another 10 years on the Stan Musial level, making him one of the all-time veterans of the park. He hit for power and played flawlessly at shortstop, making every team he played for better.

-Mike Tussey, who coached youth league baseball for 22 years and won a state championship in 1988 with the Stan Musial adult league where he won more than 200 games in 10 seasons, was also a cable television broadcaster who was in the booth for countless high school and American Legion games in the 1970s and 1980s.