Zack Klemme: Trimble provides steadying hand in storm for Central

·7 min read

Dec. 4—LEXINGTON — Steve Trimble claimed not to know why Johnson Central tabbed him as the interim coach when Jim Matney was hospitalized in September.

For Tommy McKenzie, Friday night was why.

The Golden Eagles, despite the loss of the architect of their program to COVID-19 complications on Sept. 28 at age 62, played in their sixth Class 4A state championship in a span of seven years.

Trimble was the proverbial experienced sailor in a storm who guided Johnson Central back to Kroger Field.

"It's just an amazing accomplishment," said McKenzie, the Golden Eagles' athletic director. "With what these guys have been through the last couple years, it's been an unbelievable feat for these guys to get here tonight."

Of course, McKenzie, Johnson County Schools superintendent Thom Cochran and Johnson Central principal Justin Arms had to talk Trimble into it first, which took some doing, McKenzie said.

"He was nervous, almost like a first-year head coach would be," McKenzie said, "but I'm glad he stepped in there. ... There were a lot of people that had a lot of confidence in Mr. Trimble, one of those guys being coach Matney. He was the obvious choice for us if he was willing to do it, which he was."

Trimble was a natural pick, McKenzie said, because he was beginning his 18th year on Matney's staff as the head coach's eyes in the press box, relaying information down to the field via headset to aid Matney's play-calling. Trimble, as Johnson Central's principal, also hired Matney to coach the Golden Eagles in 2004 as a key moment in a relationship that dated back four decades.

"I think he was somebody that everybody looked at as being a guy that could stabilize this thing," McKenzie said. "He's the guy that knew coach Matney the best and he's the guy that had been with coach Matney the longest. ... He's kept this system in place that coach Matney has instilled in these kids and these other coaches."

For Trimble, the first goal wasn't a return trip to Kroger Field after the Golden Eagles missed out on that a year ago, he said. It was keeping the wheels on.

"My goal was to keep the team together," Trimble said. "They said, 'Don't worry about wins and losses, just try to keep things together, because it's a tough time,' and with the help of the assistant coaches and the people that surround the program, the booster club, (we did). ... It took a lot of people and I had a lot of help, and I was fortunate enough and blessed to be a part of this program for this season."

It was surely a blessing in greater measure than Trimble expected going into it, thanks to a greatly expanded role from recent years, though Trimble is no stranger to calling the shots either on the gridiron, where he was the Golden Eagles' head coach from 1988-91, or off it. He served stints as middle school principal, high school principal and superintendent in the Johnson County district before his retirement.

McKenzie was a student at Johnson County Middle and at Johnson Central High when Trimble was the principal there, he said, and Trimble was the district's superintendent when McKenzie came on board as the Golden Eagles' basketball coach in 2007 — hence McKenzie still referring to him as "Mr. Trimble."

"Has not changed a bit," McKenzie said. "He looks the same, sounds the same, acts the same. Everything about him is the same."

That benefited a new generation of Golden Eagles who had suddenly lost their voice — not to mention their chief strategist.

The Golden Eagles, buoyed by a deep coaching staff that included four former head coaches — Jesse Peck, Tony Burchett and Scotty McCoy, in addition to Trimble — did their best to compensate for that. After Johnson Central fell to Rock Creek Christian (Maryland), 22-14, on Sept. 17 in its second game under Trimble to drop to 3-2, the Golden Eagles didn't lose again until Friday's state final.

Johnson Central dominated Class 4A, District 8 without a final margin closer than 30 points, it beat up on Class 3A state finalist Belfry in the regular season finale, it went on the road in the region final and upended Corbin by three scores, and it rallied past Franklin County, the team that ended their 2020 season, in the state semifinals.

"(Trimble) hadn't coached in like 30 years, so it takes everybody a little bit to get back into it, but once he got back in the swing of things, I felt like he really did a good job with us and made us keep our heads up, keep our heads on straight," Johnson Central senior quarterback/defensive back Grant Rice said, "because it was really easy to get down on ourselves at times because we didn't have that guy like Matney that was always there pushing you, pushing you, pushing you for excellence.

"I feel like (Trimble) did a good job of that and just keeping us where we needed to be going, keeping us on the right track."

Trimble did it while being perfectly content to deflect credit to everyone else involved — Matney, the players, the assistant coaches and the community. The Kentucky Football Coaches Association even tabbed Matney the district's Coach of the Year, an award his widow Debby and sons Dalton and Carson accepted in a pregame ceremony.

Where some might have felt overshadowed, Trimble was happy to point attention to Matney and recognize his role in setting a season in motion he wasn't able to witness personally.

"He is the ultimate team player and he bleeds black and gold, wants the best for this school system," McKenzie said. "He's one of the most humble guys you're ever gonna meet. I think he more than anybody else, outside of maybe coach Matney's family, wants (a championship) for him so bad. He can't stand himself."

It was not meant to be on Friday night. Boyle County got up two possessions in the first half on Johnson Central, which with its trademark deliberately paced offense isn't built to quickly come back from big deficits, and the Rebels pulled away to a 30-13 win.

That hardly meant the Golden Eagles, and Trimble, got nothing from the experience. Trimble has made it a habit to tell players in individual and group settings that he loves them, and it has stuck in a season where the man he called the program's "father figure" in a postgame press conference Friday was lost.

"I feel like he really does love me, and I feel like I love him too," Rice said. "He's always there for me, and I feel like he'd be there for any one of our players at any time. He expects the same from us when we come out on the field on Friday nights. It's just kinda that relationship: he gives respect and you give respect. That's just how it is."

Fostering those relationships was vital to keeping Johnson Central moving through a uniquely difficult campaign.

"I love every kid in there, the kids that play, the kids that didn't play," Trimble said. "It's that bond that I think we'll always have, with the players and also the coaches."

Now Trimble, 62, can return to retirement. He's earned the rest, not only from a long and distinguished career as an educator, but also from an additional chapter he didn't plan on penning.

"I may be a little excited that I can go back to retirement a little bit," Trimble cracked, "but I'll miss being around the kids and being around the coaches."

Even though Trimble's Third Act came about from terribly sad circumstances, the Golden Eagles are better off for it.

Reach ZACK KLEMME at zklemme@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.

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