LEWISBURG, W.Va. — The governor was livid.
“Other than GOD above and my family, I place my duties as Governor above all else,” he thundered in a statement sent out Tuesday evening. “All I do is work, and I love my work, and I love the people of West Virginia, especially the kids.”
But there were some, he went on, who had recently committed a “vile action,” one that was “manifestly arbitrary and capricious,” even forbidden by law.
His antagonists were three retirees who sit on the school board in Greenbrier County, 110 miles southeast of the state capital. In August, they had voted not to hire Gov. Jim Justice to coach the boys’ varsity basketball team at Greenbrier East High School.
“Does the hate of these Board members hurt?” the governor wrote. “Of course, it does.”
This blast of dudgeon over his authority to coach the boys’ basketball team in his spare time — he already coaches the girls’ team — was par for the course in Justice’s tenure as governor of West Virginia. A coal mining tycoon and the state’s richest person, Justice, whose two terms in office have been richly marbled with conflicts of interest, has generally bulldozed past various rules and obligations. He has been hounded by private companies, federal agencies and county governments for hundreds of millions in unpaid bills, and he was sued, successfully, for preferring to spend his nights at his home in Greenbrier rather than in the state capital, as the state constitution mandates.
But he remains unabashed, and most voters, judging from the 33-point margin of his reelection in 2020, seem unbothered.
People may understandably ask why he would want to coach the Spartans while his state is struggling with no shortage of serious ills. Most urgently, West Virginia is in the middle of one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with a record number of infected people in hospitals and a vaccination rate that, despite a pro-vaccine campaign featuring Justice’s pet, Babydog, lags behind every other state. To this question, Justice has a straightforward answer: He insists he would be good at it.
For two decades, Justice, 70, has coached the girls’ varsity team at Greenbrier East, winning a state championship in 2012. For seven years before becoming governor, he coached the boys’ team, too. As he detailed in an official grievance that he filed with the state public employees board, Justice led the teams to more wins than any coach in school history.
For many, however, the issue is not whether Justice, a Democrat turned Republican in office, would be good at the boys’ coaching job, but whether it is something he should really be focusing on right now.
“I have no animosity toward the governor at all,” said Richard Parker, the newest school board member, before he was told to refer any questions to a lawyer. “I just don’t see how he can be at both the girls’ games and boys’ games and still do his job as governor.”
Justice’s ties in rural Greenbrier County are many and deep. In 2009, he bought the Greenbrier resort, a historic, 710-room luxury retreat that had fallen into bankruptcy. He restored it to its extravagant glory, earning the undying gratitude of residents and making him the county’s largest employer.
The second-largest employer in the county is the board of education. There is some overlap.
The superintendent, for instance, is also the director of entertainment for the Greenbrier resort. A member of the school board is married to a photographer who works there. At a recent board meeting, a retired lawyer stood up to express support for the board’s coaching decision, yet even he acknowledged having led tours at the Greenbrier for several years.
Still, Justice has been involved with Greenbrier East basketball for much longer than he has owned the resort. Although his tenure has not been without controversy, he has won plenty and is a big-spending booster, paying to have parquet floors installed in the gymnasium like in an NBA arena, with his signature painted on the boards for posterity.
Earlier this year, Bimbo Coles, a graduate of Greenbrier East who played professionally, stepped down as coach of the boys’ varsity team, a position he had held since Justice left. Administrators at the high school interviewed six candidates, all youth basketball coaches or assistant coaches. The superintendent then informed the board that they had unanimously settled on only one: Jim Justice.
“I know I can do the job,” Justice told West Virginia MetroNews in August, insisting it would not detract from his performance as governor. “At my age, I’ll have to have great assistant coaches,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, they’ll have to do the work. I’ll coach the game. Nevertheless, I love the kids.”
In mid-August, the principal of the high school released a statement to the news media explaining why, after interviewing all the candidates, “Coach James Justice was the clear choice.” The letter highlighted his experience and success and said that people who had played for him had “expressed their amazement of a man who works tirelessly, loves West Virginia, and loves all children as well as embraces all players, no matter their basketball talent.”
Meanwhile, Justice’s lawyer sent a letter to the superintendent warning of “legal action” if the board were to deny him the position despite qualifications that “tower above the other applicants.’”
But at two school board meetings, several parents and residents as well as a player for the boys’ team, whose father was a candidate for the coaching job, spoke out against Justice’s appointment, saying they wanted someone who could give the team full attention. Some questioned how the governor could devote his time to two teams as well as a state in the throes of COVID-19 and expressed displeasure at the apparent answer: assistant coaches.
On Aug. 23, the board voted, 3-2, to reject Justice.
“Anybody would feel some level of emptiness,” the governor said ruefully of the board’s decision, at the end of a news conference about the state’s COVID-19 crisis. He had coached more than two dozen seasons at the school, he said, achieving “success beyond belief.” “There’s no question whatsoever,” he went on, “this is the worst of the worst from the standpoint of the kids.”
At the next board meeting, in mid-September, a group of people showed up to praise Justice, reading letters of support for the governor and expressing bafflement as to why the board had not chosen him. That same day, Justice’s lawyer filed the formal grievance. The grievance, which listed Justice’s job title as “Girls Basketball Coach,” argued that “failing to select a candidate who is by far the most qualified — whether out of personal animus, political opposition, or any other reason — is arbitrary and capricious.” The governor was hauling the county school board before a judge.
An unusual week passed. The governor announced winners in the “Do it for Babydog” vaccination lottery, the number of known coronavirus infections in the state reached new highs, and the school board members conferred with their counsel. The lawyer who had sued about the governor’s unconstitutional residency in Greenbrier announced he was planning to sue again. To some, it was both surprising and predictable that things had gone this far.
“He likes to get what he wants, and he doesn’t like to hear no,” said Brentz Thompson, the retired lawyer who spoke at the school board meeting. “We can’t figure any other reason why he wants it.”
Then on Tuesday night, Justice sent out his letter. “I refuse to spend time fighting HATE,” it read. He was withdrawing his name, despite his love for the community and the “hundreds of calls from people in total disbelief” at the board’s decision. The board should pick another coach, he said.
The letter then concluded with something like a poem.
“My kids win in principle values!
“My kids win in the academics of the classroom!
“My kids win in life after basketball!
“And my East teams win on the floor! (496-173 74.1%).”