Ky. coaching legend remembered for love of mountain kids

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PAINTSVILLE, Ky. (KT) – Seth Carter went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Tuesday and, like many do, took a seat and immediately started strolling through his phone.

He was stopped cold by a Facebook post that revealed Jim Matney, the beloved football coach at Johnson Central High School, had lost his month-long battle with COVID-19. He was gone. Dead at 62 years old.

The news took Carter’s breath away, and it’s left the Paintsville community in a stunning state of shock although they knew the coach was on a ventilator in a Huntington, West Virginia, hospital. Everybody was waiting - and praying - for good news that simply never came. It was heartwrenching.

Carter is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Paintsville, the same town where Matney coached football at a championship level. As Carter looked around the restaurant, it seemed everybody was looking down at their smartphones with saddened expressions. Jim Matney was dead. It was hard to read.

“I heard table after table after table talking about him,” Carter said. “That’s just one example in one little restaurant. The whole community is going to feel that impact.”

By afternoon, everybody knew. Paintsville has become a sad place. It had become a place where Matney stories were being told and prayers were going up for his wife Debby and two sons.

Carter said Matney deserves to be in the conversation as one of the greatest coaches ever in eastern Kentucky. Nobody in Paintsville would disagree, not even rival schools who lost plenty and often by a lot to Johnson Central.

“You have to put him up there in that class with (Belfry coach Phil) Haywood,” Carter said. “He was the consummate father figure for a lot of those boys and remained that for their post-graduate years. You hear these testimonies of guys who have this close relationship with him to this day. That kind of legacy is the best one a coach can leave behind.”

Carter is the team chaplain for Johnson Central city rival Paintsville High School but, once a year, he did devotions for the Golden Eagles.

Matney is a mountain coaching legend with multiple state championships in wrestling and football at Johnson Central High School. His death came from complications of COVID-19.

His sister-in-law Janette Jude announced the death in a social media post.

Matney contracted COVID-19 sometime after Johnson Central played Lexington’s Henry Clay on Aug. 20 and began suffering complications since then. He suffered a stroke en route to a West Virginia hospital nearly a month ago.

“Jim passed away peacefully after the boys were able to say their goodbyes, with Debby by his side,” Jude said in the post, referring to his wife Debby Matney. “I regret that he didn’t know how many of you cared and reached out to our family. Thank you so much. We’re heartbroken but we will get through this. We have so many of you who I know will be there for us all. Please pray for peace, comfort, and strength for us.”

The community reached out daily to the Matney family daily and had a prayer vigil for him earlier this month. They sent messages of prayer for the past month to his wife’s Facebook page.

Matney had won 307 games as a head coach, including state titles in 2016 and 2019 at Johnson Central. Only a dozen coaches in Kentucky high school history have accumulated more than 300 victories.

A graduate of Belfry High School in 1977, where he played football, basketball, baseball and wrestled, Matney went to Liberty University where he also wrestled.

He was named the wrestling and football coach at Sheldon Clark in 1984 and took on the same role at Johnson Central. He led Sheldon Clark to team wrestling championships in 1994 and 1995 and coached 30 individual champions between the two schools.

Matney got his football head coaching start at Sheldon Clark High School in Martin County. The Cardinals went 0-10 in his first year and then won 124 games over the next 19 seasons, including one trip to the state semifinals. He took over at Johnson Central in 2004 and directed the Golden Eagles to their only state finals appearances over the course of five straight seasons from 2015 to 2019. Johnson Central won its first state football title in 2016, defeating Franklin-Simpson 48-0.

“He could have gone and coached anywhere,” said Josh Schmidt, the lead pastor at Grayson First Baptist he played for him at Sheldon Clark. “He had a deep burden for kids in the mountains. We were a lot more blessed than a lot of kids were in Martin County but Matney treated every kid the same.”

Matney came to know the Lord as a young man at Belfry First Baptist Church where he was baptized by Bob Norman. He attended Inez First Baptist when coaching at Sheldon Clark where Josh Schmidt’s late father, Paul, was the pastor.

“He and Dad had a great relationship,” Josh Schmidt said. "When Dad was going to Cleveland Clinic and having his entire colon removed, my parents didn't have very reliable transportation. Coach Matney gave Dad his van for two months. He would not accept no for an answer."

Tommy Reed, the pastor at Fitzpatrick Baptist in Prestonsburg, went to school with Matney. He said he and his wife were “heartbroken” upon hearing the news.

Reed remembers the highly competitive Matney from his high school days. They are separated by only two years. He said not only was Matney good at any sport he played, but he was also smart. He graduated from Liberty while being on the wrestling team and even competed in the Pan Am Games in that sport.

Matney was maybe a better wrestling coach than a football coach and that’s saying a lot.

“He never forgot where he was from,” Reed said. “He didn’t want to leave the mountains. He was smart, academically; he was brilliant with wrestling. He was so tough, tough as iron. But when I think of Jim Matney, it will always be that big ‘ol smile.”

Reed said while there’s comfort in knowing that Matney was a Christian, his heart still aches for his wife and two boys and the thousands of his boys from the mountain that he has impacted in nearly 40 years of coaching.

Carter said his life provides “a great open door for the gospel” to be shared.

Matney’s death also puts a face on the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken so many lives. Carter survived a bout with COVID himself.

“I took it seriously beforehand but once I had it, it opened my eyes to what we’re up against,” he said. “It’s nasty. One of my church members texted me earlier and said so many times I look at the numbers and I just see statistics. It affects real people with real families and a death like this impacts a lot of people, more than the community and probably the whole state.”

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