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COVID complications claim the life of legendary Johnson Central High School coach Jim Matney

By Mark Maynard
Kentucky Today

Jim Matney, a mountain coaching legend with multiple state championships in wrestling and football at Johnson Central High School, died Tuesday from complications of COVID-19.

His sister-in-law Janette Jude announced the death of the storied Kentucky coach 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.

Coach Jim Matney celebrates winning the 2019 state championship with his team and assistant coaches. (Photo by Kevin Goldy, The Daily Independent, via Kentucky Today)

“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 and had a prayer vigil for him earlier this month.

“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 had won 307 games as a head coach, including state titles in 2016 and 2019 at Johnson Central, heading into the 2021 season. 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 and wrestled, Matney went to Liberty University where he also wrestled. He was the wrestling and football coach at Sheldon Clark 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 head coaching start in 1984 at Sheldon Clark High School in Martin County. The Cardinals went 0-10 in his first year but won 124 games over the next 19 seasons, two of which ended in the state semifinals. He took over at Johnson Central in 2004, and guided 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.

Seth Carter, the pastor of Paintsville First Baptist, said Matney deserves to be in the conversation as one of the greatest coaches ever in eastern Kentucky.

“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.

“It’s such a huge loss for the community,” he said. “People are numb.”

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 10 years at Sheldon Clark where Josh Schmidt’s late father, Paul, was the pastor.

“He and Dad had a great relationship,” Josh Schmidt said.

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.

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