'A Big Deal to Him': W. Va. Governor Angrily Withdraws from Trying to Moonlight as a Boys' Basketball Coach
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice already coaches a girls' varsity basketball team in his spare time, but he was none too pleased to be rejected when he tried to take on another coaching job while also running his state amid a pandemic.
The 70-year-old Republican issued a scathing statement this week as he announced he would no longer fight a local school board who rejected his application to coach the Greenbriar East High School's boys' varsity basketball team.
Justice said he was "hurt" by the ruling, blaming it on what he called "the hate of these Board members."
Last month, as it became clear Justice wouldn't get the additional coaching role, he told reporters: "Anybody would feel some level of emptiness."
In a three-to-two vote in August, the school board ruled against hiring Justice for the job, with locals questioning how he would balance two positions in high school athletics — while also governing a state in the grips of a pandemic.
Some of the players spoke before the vote and said they wanted a coach who could devote full attention to the team, according to WV Metro News.
"You know what entails being coach, how much time and energy it takes," school board member Rich Parker told WV Metro News in an earlier interview. "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."
Justice, a popular figure in West Virginia who made a fortune in coal, has a history of run-ins over debts and other issues — including whether he was breaking a constitutional rule about where he lived. He coached both the Greenbrier girls' and boys' teams in the past, but he retired from coaching the boys team in 2017.
His coaching career hasn't been without controversy, including an instance in 2020 in which he called an opposing high school girls' team — comprised of mostly Black athletes — "a bunch of thugs." He said in a statement after that it was "absurd" to suggest he had chosen words with racist undertones.
His attempt to get back in the game seemed to come at an inopportune time, however, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit West Virginia particularly hard. The state is grappling with record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and one of the nation's lowest vaccination rates.
Justice filed a grievance following the school board's ruling but, amid criticism and confusion over his increasing focus on the basketball job, the governor ultimately withdrew his name from consideration, according to WV Metro News.
In a letter sent to the president of the Greenbrier County Board of Education and the Greenbrier County superintendent of schools announcing his withdrawal, Justice continued to express disbelief that he wasn't selected for the coaching job.
The governor — whose net worth has at times been pegged at more than a billion dollars — made a fortune in the coal mining industry and owns a number of businesses in the state, including The Greenbrier, a luxury resort in White Sulphur Springs.
"One would have to think that 20 years as head coach , 26 seasons (6 boys, 20 girls), with all exemplary evaluations and incredible success should really speak volumes," he wrote in the letter, WV Metro News reported.
The letter continued: "When you love our school and community as I do — it really hurts ... Nevertheless, I am withdrawing my name from pursuing the Head Boys' Basketball Coach position. I refuse to spend time fighting HATE."
Attorney Michael Carey, who represented Justice in filing the grievance, told The Washington Post that coaching the team was "a big deal" to his client.
"If you know Governor Justice, you know, he cares deeply about West Virginia in general, and he cares deeply about the youth of West Virginia," Carey told the Post. "And he has served as, for example, the girl's basketball coach for over 20 years, no matter what his other obligations are. And so it's a big deal to him."
The state, meanwhile, has significant public health issues from the coronavirus.
While West Virginia health officials believe cases of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus may have peaked, they reportedly worry that it could still put a strain on hospitals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seven-day average of cases in the state is the second highest in the nation.
"We think we're at the peak, and if we're at the peak, if we can make this another four to six weeks, maybe only two or three, things will get a lot better," Justice said in a briefing earlier this week.
Recent health data shows that approximately 63.7 percent of people over age 12 have received at least one dose of the vaccine in West Virginia, putting it among the states with the lowest vaccination rate.
Data shows that death rates from COVID-19 are four times higher in the states with the lowest vaccination rates.