Governor wants coaching job, school board is in a bind, and votes might not add up to a win

The Greenbrier County school board still has an unusually big decision ahead about a high school basketball coach, considering the applicant is this state’s governor whose family owns the resort that is a major county employer.

“If you do a little digging you’ll find out why there might be some pressure,” said Rick Parker, one of the five board members who has to make that call.

School board members gathered in a lengthy meeting this Tuesday to discuss whether to hire notable applicant James C. Justice II, businessman and governor, as the boys basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School.

Justice used to be the boys coach at the high school, starting in 2010, but he announced his retirement from that team in 2017, his first year in office as governor. Former professional basketball player Bimbo Coles took over that year but now has departed.

Meanwhile, Justice continued coaching the Greenbrier East Lady Spartans, just as he has since the year 2000.

So he wants to take on both teams while also running the state’s executive branch and heading up his family’s business empire that spans tourism, agriculture and coal.

Justice has long taken pride in saying, “There are three things I can do: I can make a business deal; I can shoot a shotgun; and I can coach a basketball team.”

Despite Justice’s long track record as a coach, the five-member school board found this week’s decision so difficult that they tabled it. The next regular meeting is Sept. 14, although the board could circle back prior to that during a special meeting August 23.

Another board member, Mary Humphreys, suggested a decision can be reached in the next month. But asked if consensus will emerge, Humphreys said “No, not really. I don’t know that. We tabled it and I just don’t know.”

Parker already says publicly, “I will be a no.”

Some of the current school board members also served on the board when Justice was considered to be the boys coach in 2010.

Kay Smith and Hazel Reed were the two no votes that year. So if their votes remain the same and Parker is also a no, then Justice would not have the votes.

In the 2010 hiring, Justice prevailed with three votes: Jeannie Wyant, who is still on the board as president, plus departed members Kathy King and Bob Toothman.

Smith, Reed and Wyatt couldn’t be reached Thursday by telephone.

In 2012, two years after Justice was selected boys coach by the slimmest of margins, he and many of his associates provided significant financial support for his assistant coach in the next race for school board. However, the assistant coach, Tina Dunbar, didn’t manage to pull off an upset against either incumbent, Reed or Toothman, on the ballot that year.

“Why in the world would I twist this to be something to be like, ‘Jim Justice is wanting to be involved in the Board of Education’ or ‘he didn’t like Hazel Reed?'” Justice told the Gazette-Mail that year. Of his support for his assistant coach in that year’s race, Justice said, “It’s just as simple as she has every right to run and I absolutely support her.

Reed told the Gazette-Mail that year that she took Justice at his word that her vote against him as basketball coach hadn’t resulted in an attempt at political retribution. “If he says it isn’t [about my vote], it must not be,” Reed told the newspaper.

Hiring the next coach for any high-profile school athletic program is a high-stakes scenario in a small community, but this one stands out because of how the applicant makes the West Virginia dirt rumble with every step.

The governor has such power that when the covid-19 epidemic was starting he was the one who made the call to halt the 2020 state basketball tournament, even though the Lady Spartans were contenders. Justice has cited this instance several times as an example of his fairmindedness. Nevertheless, it’s unusual power for a guy also calling plays on the sidelines.

In another instance, when Justice was coaching a heated game and afterwards called a rival girls team dominated by black players “a bunch of thugs,” state athletic officials awkwardly had to weigh how to handle the West Virginia’s chief executive.

Justice also has major influence with the Greenbrier County economy. To much acclaim, Justice’s family purchased the iconic Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in 2009. Since Justice became governor, his daughter Jill has served as president of the resort.

The Greenbrier holds a special place in West Virginia’s history, laying claim as “America’s Resort” that has been visited by presidents but also enjoyed by the general public. It also employs hundreds of people in the area.

Wyatt, the school board president, is married to Mike Wyatt, who leases a shop at the hotel to run Greenbrier Photography while serving as official resort photographer.

The superintendent of schools in Greenbrier County, Jeff Bryant, wears another hat as The Greenbrier’s entertainment director. Bryant was the principal at Greenbrier East when Justice was first hired as the girls coach.

Governor Jim Justice

The governor, speaking to MetroNews this week prior to the board’s consideration, said the superintendent and the principal wanted him to apply as the boys coach.

“I thought a lot about it and everything, surely not to take away from the governorship at all,” Justice said. “We’ll see. We’ll see how the board votes and everything. The superintendent asked me; the principal, the vice principal, the athletic director all want me to do it. And I know I can do the job.”

Justice added, “If it works out, it’d be great. If it doesn’t work out it’d be sad, a little bit, but we’ll go on.”

The governor acknowledged the balance will be a challenge but said as head coach he will have to rely on help.

“At my age, I’ll have to have great assistant coaches. And to be perfectly honest, they’ll have to do the work. I’ll coach the game,” he said. “Nevertheless I love the kids. That’s all there is to it.”

Rick Parker

Parker said that’s too much for anyone to handle, a factor in his no vote.

“You know what entails being  coach, how much time and energy it takes,” Parker said. “If you’re the girls coach and going to be the boys coach also, there’s bound to be time constraints there. It’s just really hard to justify.”

Parker said he can not publicly describe what went on in executive session. But he indicated pressure was clear.

“What I can tell you about Mr. Justice is he’s quite explicit at times,” Parker said.

Usually, Parker said that the school board often listens to different views about decisions that would be best for the school system and tries to find some common ground. “We’re supposed to be doing what’s best for the students and staff of Greenbrier County,” he said.

But asked if that kind of latitude is possible in this situation, Parker took a long, long pause.

He responded, “I would like to be quoted as being a very conservative person who wants the best for Greenbrier County schools. The other board members would say the same thing. We have to vote our conscience in the long run.”

Mary Humphreys

Humphreys, another board member, said she personally has not felt pressure on this vote. In another example of the many connections in a small community, she lives on the same Lewisburg street as the Justices.

“There’s no pressure on my part,” she said. “I can’t say that I have any pressure.”

But Humphreys does hope the topic soon turns.

“I do wish there was more concern about academics than athletics.”

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