Sources: Governor pitched Pruett to supplant Holliday

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice twice met with top Marshall University officials in recent months suggesting they replace football coach Doc Holliday with former coach Bob Pruett, according to multiple sources.

Marshall president Jerome Gilbert was summoned to a meeting with the governor-elect Dec. 4 at the Greenbrier Resort, where Justice first proposed the coaching change. Sources said Gilbert contended Holliday’s job was safe, and if a coaching vacancy should arise, it would spawn a nationwide search.

Gilbert, 18 months into his tenure as Marshall’s president, declined comment to MetroNews on Wednesday.

Justice made his pitch for Pruett again March 28 — during the height of the Legislature’s budget battle — by calling five members of the university Board of Governors to a meeting at the Capitol. The board members present included chairman Wyatt Scaggs, James Bailes, Christie Kinsey, Tim Dagostine and Oshel Craigo.

Justice, who along with his wife Cathy and daughter Jill all graduated from Marshall, said he longed to see The Herd return to the success they enjoyed during Pruett’s tenure from 1996-2004. Several sources confirmed Justice made clear his specific interest in reinstating the 73-year-old Pruett, a suggestion that caught board members off guard.

Board members referred questions to Scaggs, who declined comment.

Nick Casey, the governor’s chief of staff, attended the meeting and said Justice spoke as an alumnus in voicing frustrations with Herd athletics — referencing the “golden years” under Pruett.

Casey claimed Justice focused more broadly on challenging the board to raise Marshall’s overall profile — touching on the need to bolster enrollment, acquire additional research funding and generate more energy before the school is “turned into a community college.”

“It was not a meeting to say ‘Fire the coach and hire Pruett,” Casey said. “It was a meeting to say ratchet up your game and do something to get yourself back to greatness.”

Marshall slumped to 3-9 last season after posting double-digit wins for three consecutive years under Holliday.

Pruett, out of coaching since his retirement in April 2005, denied knowledge of the meetings. He deferred questions to the governor, a long-time friend for whom Pruett and former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen campaigned last year.

“You’ll have to talk to Jim,” Pruett told MetroNews. “I don’t know anything about that. I’m retired. I’m 73.”

Pruett’s 94-23 record at Marshall began with a 15-0 team that won the Division I-AA national title in 1996. The Herd then successfully transitioned to the FBS level, making seven bowl appearances over the next eight seasons.

However, the program also ran afoul of NCAA rules and was placed on four years’ probation in 2001, leading to the loss of scholarships. While Pruett was not cited in the NCAA findings, the school’s compliance coordinator David Ridpath alleged Pruett and assistants skirted NCAA rules by arranging $200-a-day jobs for players at a local machine shop.

Ridpath, reassigned after the scandal and stripped of his adjunct professor status, filed a federal suit against Marshall in 2003 and ultimately received a $200,000 settlement in 2009.

Herd athletics director Mike Hamrick, while declining to speak about the reports of Justice intervening, continues to support Holliday, the coach he hired in December 2009.

Holliday is 53-37 in seven seasons at Marshall, including a 4-0 bowl record. After his 2014 team finished 13-1 with a No. 23 AP ranking, Holliday signed an extension through the 2020 season at an annual salary worth $725,000.

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