Justice to keep coaching basketball
LEWISBURG — All eyes in the small room are fixed on West Virginia Gov.-elect Jim Justice. He wants focus. He’s asking for better effort and execution.
A month before his inauguration, Justice is going strong as the head coach of the boys and girls basketball teams at Greenbrier East High School, not far from the posh Greenbrier resort he owns.
In a rarity for a sitting governor, Justice plans to keep his feet planted firmly on the basketball court after he takes the oath of office. Prowling the sidelines under the watchful eyes of parents could prepare him for the second-guessing the Democrat will encounter in his day job — and continuing to coach is probably the least complicated decision he faces as he makes the transition to being governor.
West Virginia’s richest man runs 102 businesses. Like President-elect Donald Trump, Justice must deal with those interests as he steps into the state’s highest political office. He said he plans to put his business assets in a blind trust while he’s governor, as former governors Jay Rockefeller and Gaston Caperton both did.
A few months ago, his daughter, Jill Justice, was named president of the resort her father bought out of bankruptcy in 2009. His son, Jay Justice, handles his coal and agriculture operations.
But basketball? He says that’s his to keep.
On this December night, in the locker room at halftime, Justice’s girls have a solid lead over Beckley’s Woodrow Wilson High. But he’s trying to coax more out of his players.
“Here’s the whole straight skinny,” Justice tells them. “They’ve made a lot of nervous mistakes, haven’t they? They’ve got 19 turnovers. They’re only 14 down because you basically let them crawl back into the game. You ought to be 40 points ahead right now. You go out there and get bloomin’ determined and come out of the gate like you’re 10 down. OK?”
After some adjustments, the Greenbrier East girls prevail.
There will be more than a month of basketball left when Justice is sworn in Jan. 16. While Justice said his assistant coaches can run the teams when he’s unable to, “I’m planning to be here.”
“Believe me, I’m not going to shirk one responsibility in the world, whether it be with the state or these kids,” Justice said. “But my first and foremost obligation — there’s no question — is to be the governor.”
Just not your normal governor. This is his 16th season coaching the Greenbrier East girls and his fifth with the boys.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was California’s governor, he quit his job as executive editor of two body-building magazines amid criticism.
For Justice, there are state championships to be won.
“I love kids,” Justice said. “It’s my release. I don’t go on vacation. I work all the bloomin’ time. This is my vacation.”
It’s also a lot of responsibility, he admits.
Justice’s team won the 2012 girls state championship, and March 2015 marked the first time he coached both the boys and girls in state tournaments.
But this March, he’ll be in the thick of the legislative session. What then?
West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas thinks the incoming governor should stop coaching once he takes office. Justice’s priorities “absolutely should be the state of West Virginia,” Lucas said. “The citizens of West Virginia deserve a full-time governor. That’s the minimal expectations.”
Star players such as senior Katie Wilmer and freshman Haley McClure believe their coach won’t leave them behind. And Jill Justice, who played for her dad at Greenbrier East, sees no problem with him being both governor and coach.
“He’s used to being on the go and doing a lot of tasks at once,” she said.
Before each home game, Jim Justice and his wife, Cathy, host the players at their house for a pregame meal. He attends every practice. And during games he uses many of the same leadership skills he hopes will make him a successful governor.
The common ground isn’t lost on Justice.
“You’ve got to have a leader of the band that people believe in,” he said. “It’s one thing to do what the leader says, but it’s another thing to believe in what the leader is trying to get you to do. And so the leader’s got to be all in. He’s got to be passionate. I think I can deliver that.”