Columbus High boys basketball coach Jimmy Motz is perhaps the most recognizable coach in the city. At 6-7, he stands out on the court and everywhere else he goes.
When he was hired five years ago, most knew the name from his playing days at Creighton. Motz had more than a few memorable moments for the Bluejays that often prompt questions and requests for stories from Columbus and opposing fans alike.
Yet, while he may have made a name for himself under Dana Altman, college basketball was once never even a consideration for his future.
At just 5 feet, 8 inches at the conclusion of junior high, basketball was third on the list of Motz's sports love. Two summers later, he was playing on an AAU hoops team in Lincoln and traveling the country with other teenagers who went on to various Division I hoops programs across the country.
Now, almost 20 years after receiving his Northeast diploma, Motz is in the midst of trying to bring Columbus, an old foe during his varsity days, back to the glory days that were so common in the 20th century.
There are enough strange connections between Motz and Columbus over the years to make it seem like coaching the Discoverers one day was his destiny. However, if that were the case, there was a time he would have assumed his coaching duties would have come from the dugout instead of on the bench.
From Legion ball to AAU
Jimmy Motz grew up the second of two boys in the Motz household. Jimmy's dad Jerry once scored 57 points in a game for Northeast in 1964. Jerry missed his first four shots that night in a road game at South Sioux City before making the next 23 in a row.
His uncle Jan Wall was the Lincoln Journal Star Athlete of the Year in 1958 at Northeast. Jan stood at 6-7 and went on to play baseball and basketball at Nebraska.
Jan was in the middle of a professional baseball career in the farm system of the New York Mets when a car accident cut his career short.
His aunt on his dad's side, Eileen, was an All-State basketball player at Missouri Valley (Iowa) in the days of girls six-on-six.
His mom, Marcia, stands at 5-10. Thus, there was talent and size in the bloodline, but in the spring of 1997, Jimmy was still under 6 feet and seemed destined for the diamond.
In his first year of varsity sports, he earned a starting role on the baseball team and was the junior varsity quarterback on the football team by the end of the year. In basketball, he was essentially anonymous on the freshmen squad.
But by the end of his freshmen year, he was 6-4 or 6-5, shooting up eight inches in less than two years.
"When you're 6-4 or 6-5 coming off the mound and throwing 85, 87-mile-per-hour fastballs, your potential road is baseball," Motz said. "That all changed between November and March of my of my sophomore year."
The winter of 1999 was a transitional period for Northeast boys basketball. The Rockets had played in five straight state championship games and won the last four, an achievement that has been matched four other times in Nebraska boys high school basketball but only once in Class A.
But following the fourth in a row in 1998, expectations were lowered for the program following the graduation of so many key contributors.
It was perfect timing for Motz. Not only had he gotten bigger, there were spots to fill on a roster with fewer established players.
By the end of his sophomore year, Motz had earned an invitation to try out for the Nebraska Bison, one of just two AAU programs in the state. He was one of two juniors-to-be that made the senior team and suddenly had to make a decision: stay in Nebraska for a summer of Legion baseball or travel for basketball for games at locations across the United States.
“That was kind of the first adult decision I had to make because I had to give up one or the other. At the time, basketball was going to be the meal ticket for me to go on to school and get it paid for. I loved baseball, but now you’re talking the money side of things with scholarships and how much that can save mom and dad," Motz said.
“Plus, I also told myself, ‘Would I rather be on a beach in California or playing in North Platte?’ I even told my mom and dad that. I said, ‘I’d rather be at Hermosa beach.’"
From unknown to All-Stater
Interestingly enough, one of Motz's first-ever starts came in a road game at Columbus his sophomore year. Though it was just the second or third game he had ever started from the tip-off, that isn't the memory that remains. What he remembers is taking the bus ride home with an ice pack firmly pressed against his face.
Guard Tee Mason, an all-state player, and post Trevor Johnson, who went on to a career at Nebraska and the NFL, were both unavailable for the contest, leaving Motz in a starting role.
“We were coming in a little short-handed but still thinking that we’re prepared and ready to go, and they absolutely drubbed us. I think they beat us by 17," Motz said. "That was kind of my first indoctrination into high school hoops; because I got absolutely elbowed by JJ Oberg. I took one right below the eye, played through it, but man, I hurt on the way home.”
From there though, it was all uphill for Motz who began to earn sixth and seventh-man duties off the bench.
Northeast lost to Southeast in early February, then to Fremont in the last regular season game but then trounced Omaha Northwest and pounded Omaha South by 35 in district contests. The win over South was Motz's arrival to big-time basketball. He hit seven 3-pointers in the win and scored 35 points.
In the opening round of state, a rematch with Fremont, he sank a 3 to open the scoring, hit another from a few steps back then made one from the old Big 12 logo, forcing the Tigers into a box-and-one to try and contain Motz.
That opened up the floor for everyone else. Northeast went on to win 68-50.
In the semifinals, Northeast and Bellevue West played to the highest-scoring game in state tournament history, a 97-89 double-overtime win for the Thunderbirds.
Motz remembers there being seven of 10 starters on the floor that night that went on to play college sports. It was a 42-40 game at halftime that only ramped up from there. He had a chance at two one-and-one situations late in regulation that might have put the game away but missed the front end of both. Motz converted two foul shots moments later but Bellevue West hit a 3 and forced overtime.
Tee Mason then had a layup chance at the buzzer in the first overtime but lost. Bellevue West eventually took control in the second overtime.
“We had chances to put it away, they had chances to put it away, it just wasn’t meant to be for us," Motz said. "To play in front of 14,000 people that day at the state tournament is something I’ll never forget; Devaney was rocking.”
Due in large part to that game going well beyond regulation, Bellevue West took it on the chin the next day to Grand Island 73-46.
Motz and the Rockets were 13-3 his junior year then ended 13-7 with a tough late stretch. Northeast was assigned a district that included Omaha Burke, Omaha Westside and Southeast. All three went on to qualify for the state tournament. Northeast was left in a situation needing Fremont to beat Norfolk but the Tigers failed and the Rockets missed state by a tenth of a wildcard point.
His senior year the team was 10-13 and lost in the district semifinal to a buzzer-beater by Lincoln High. Northeast didn't return to the state tournament until 2004.
“I think the one thing that those things teach you in those moments is just, in those moments, how do you handle those things. I think the one thing I’ve learned is, you’re going to have a lot more adversity than successes. That was really the first time for me.”
Motz ended his varsity career as a two-time Super Stater, but still wasn't thinking about basketball as part of his future as late as the end of his sophomore year.
“I went from a role guy to, all of a sudden, you’re taking big shots in big moments," Motz said. "I think that’s where confidence grew. Each game I grew more and more confident in my ability in terms of, ‘OK, I can play at this level.’ But college basketball was still the furthest thing from my mind.”
Once a Husker, now a Bluejay
The week after he and the Rockets fell in the state semifinals, Motz was back at the Devaney Center trying out for the Valentino's AAU team.
He received a phone call from former Wahoo coach Mick Anderson asking him to be a part of the team. Motz was one of two juniors to make the senior team along with Columbus High's Drew Snyder.
The team traveled to such locations as Louisville, Kentucky; Las Vegas and California for tournaments. It was in Las Vegas where he scored 17 in a game and played well on both ends of the floor when Nebraska coach Danny Nee noticed his performance.
September of his junior year he began receiving mail from Nebraska and had heard through members of the Northeast program that the Huskers were taking a hard look at offering him a scholarship.
Motz watched a Nebraska basketball workout and went to the NU/Kansas State football game on an unofficial visit the fall of 1999. January came around and a scholarship offer was waiting.
Creighton jumped into the mix not long after. Dana Altman came to watch Motz play in a game against, interestingly enough, Columbus and invited him and the family to a Bluejay game the next week.
Jimmy and Jerry Motz went up to Omaha on a Wednesday to watch Creighton play Northern Iowa. After the game, he was offered a scholarship.
But Motz was set on Nebraska until the Huskers went 20-13, lost in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament and missed out on the NCAA Tournament after qualifying the year before.
Danny Nee was fired shortly after the loss in the conference tournament. Nee called the Motz household before the firing to let the family know an announcement was going to be made about the status of his job, and that Motz's scholarship was likely no longer guaranteed.
“But he did say, ‘You need to take a hard look at Creighton.’ That’s the last thing he said to me," Motz remembered. "I think there was a mutual respect between him and Dana because he coached against Dana back in the Big Eight when (Altman) was at Kansas State.”
A case of mono in the springtime allowed Motz the free time to rest and take a visit to Creighton where he saw the facilities and heard talk about a potential new arena in downtown Omaha that would serve as the Bluejays' new home.
“We’re driving in coach’s car, I’m sitting in the front, my parents are sitting in the back, and (Altman) basically turned around and said that he had offered me a scholarship and they wanted to know soon because if not, they were going to move on," Motz said.
“On the car ride home, mom basically said, ‘If you don’t go to school here, you’re an idiot.’"
One evening while sitting on the couch, Motz popped up and said he was ready to commit. He was ready to make his decision.
Creighton was the choice.
There are many more stories about Motz's college years, but we'll leave those for another time.
“The biggest thing for me at that time was stability. I knew what I was going to get myself into. Everything just kind of fit together," he said. "For me, I look back, and it was the best decision I ever made."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!