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.
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.
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.