WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Around here last week if you heard somebody say “Coach,” they weren’t talking about the Pelicans’ Alvin Gentry. Or, back in August, the Saints’ Sean Payton.
No, the man everyone calls “Coach” in these parts is Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier, the elegant, venerable golf, tennis and croquet (Yes, croquet!), resort he rescued from bankruptcy in 2009 after Donald Trump passed on the opportunity.
He also owns almost 50 other companies, mostly associated with mining and timber, spread over four states.
And he’s running for governor of West Virginia. The election is next year, and Justice is leading in the polls to be the Democrat nominee.
As the richest man in the state, Justice certainly doesn’t have to worry much about fundraising.
But Justice’s “real” job — his passion — is coaching the boys and girls basketball teams at Greenbrier East High in nearby Lewisburg.
Almost unbelievably, Justice never misses a practice or a game. That’s a routine he says will continue when — not if — he’s elected governor and would presumably be spending much of his time 120 miles away in Charleston, the state capitol.
But then that’s why they invented helicopters.
“He’s definitely an interesting guy, and he loves basketball,” Gentry said after Justice attended one of the practice sessions during the Pels’ one-week training camp stay. “He hasn’t offered to help us out yet, but I’m sure he could.”
Justice demurs on that point, though.
“I don’t think I can do much on this level,” he said. “But I’m fascinated by watching the process of how many offensive and defensive sets this team can come up with every time up and down the floor.
“The Pelicans are an exciting young team that has everything. They’re going to make a lot of noise.”
Justice, who spent $23 million to carve a training facility and practice fields out of a mountainside for the Saints, has words of encouragement for that team as well.
“I texted Drew Brees the other night for them not to bombard themselves with the idea they have three losses, but that they’re still allowed three more losses and they can still be 10-6,” Justice said. “That’s still a pretty good season.”
The Saints’ relationship with Justice began in 2013, when Sean Payton caddied for Ryan Palmer at The Greenbrier Classic, the tour event Justice lured to the course which was the home base for Sam Snead and the site of the 1979 Ryder Cup. (Getting a U.S. Open here is on Justice’s to-do list.)
That led to the Saints coming here to train, the area’s mild temperatures being the chief reason. They will be back at least through 2016, and Payton consistently praises the place.
The Pelicans following suit came about when Gentry told General Manager Dell Demps he’d like to take the team somewhere as an early bonding experience. The two came here during the Saints’ stay and were convinced it was right for them as well.
There was no basketball facility at The Greenbrier, but that was fixed by bringing in two courts to place over the indoor tennis courts, along with scoreboards and other timing equipment.
Even the fact that a tennis exhibition the previous weekend featuring John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and James Blake had to be played indoors because of rain, didn’t prevent the court from being installed in time for the Pels’ first practice Tuesday.
“This has been a great environment for us,” Demps said. “You have no need to leave the grounds because everything is here.
“It’s a little early for us to say we’re coming back, but nothing has happened to make me feel any other way.”
If the Pels opt not to return, there are other NBA teams which have already expressed interest in doing so, and Justice speaks about The Greenbrier becoming a Summer League alternative to Las Vegas or Orlando.
And while the Saints have first dibs on the place for football, the Arizona Cardinals are practicing here this week rather than returning to Phoenix after playing at Detroit on Sunday and at Pittsburgh next week.
Doubtless Doug Miller, formerly the Saints’ executive director of football communications, who became The Greenbrier’s vice-president for marketing earlier this year, will be checking the 2016 schedule for other such possibilities when it comes out.
Having big-time sports events coming to a relatively remote place like this may seem unlikely, but it’s worth remembering The Greenbrier has been around since 1778 and has hosted numerous presidents and dignitaries over the years.
The resort was once losing a $1 million a week, but Justice has brought it back and more. More than 1,600 persons are now employed by The Greenbrier.
Justice said he’s hoping to bring to West Virginia, one of the country’s most mpoverished states, the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit he has brought to the area and that he feels the obligation to help others above any personal glory he can gain from the job.
“I just can’t get away from it,” said Justice, who has gone back and forth between being a Democrat and Republican but has never run for office before. “West Virginia been hurting for a long time, and I really think I can help.
“You just can’t turn your back on people.”
However, as governor, Justice said there is one perk of the office he would bring to his coaching gig.
“You’ve always got a state trooper with you,” he said. “I can remind the officials that if they get into it with me, they’re always subject to being tased.”