The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

West Virginia governor’s to-do list: 1. Fire Marshall’s coach. 2. Save state from ruin.

Jim Justice, West Virginia governor and college football meddler. (Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)
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The state of West Virginia has major problems.

“We’re losing population. We’re one of the youngest states in the country that’s losing population,” State House Speaker Tim Armstead said last year. “We’re last in workforce participation. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and we are near the bottom in K-12 education. Things are not where we want them to be.”

Nevertheless, Gov. Jim Justice apparently thinks the fortunes of the state’s No. 2 football program are a pressing matter: According to a report by Jake Jarvis of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Justice has been pressuring officials at Marshall University for months to fire football coach Doc Holliday and replace him with Bob Pruett, the former Thundering Herd coach who also happens to be a close friend of the governor.

History suggests that Justice might want to concentrate on running the state, not one of its football teams.

With LSU down 13-0 at halftime to Oregon in the final game of the 1934 season, U.S. Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana — long seen as a meddler in the affairs of the state’s top college team — appeared at the locker room door to demand that he be allowed to give the Tigers a pep talk. Coach Biff Jones said no, leading to this exchange as recounted by the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame:

“I’m sick and tired of losing and tying games,” said the U.S. Senator. “You’d better win this one.”
“Well, Senator, get this,’ Jones replied. “Win, lose or draw, I quit”
“That’s a bargain,” Long replied as Jones closed the door in his face.

The Tigers came back to win, 14-13. Jones kept his part of the bargain, quitting before Long could fire him and taking the top job at Nebraska. He led the Cornhuskers to the Rose Bowl after the 1940 season, the program’s first postseason game back when there were only five of them. Long tried and failed to hire Frank Thomas away from Alabama, settling on LSU assistant Bernie Moore, but never got a chance to give the Tigers a pep talk: He was assassinated three weeks before the 1935 season began.

In July 1981, Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. told reporters that “he was tired of losing” and wanted the University of Kentucky — his alma mater — to replace football coach Fran Curci with former Washington Redskins coach George Allen, a friend of the governor and his wife, CBS Sports personality Phyllis George Brown, who had worked with Allen on the network’s NFL coverage. According to a UPI report at the time, Brown had spent six months lobbying university administrators to fire Curci, leading to condemnation from the Lexington Herald’s editorial board, who called the meddling “dangerous.”

Curci would end up coaching one more season despite the governor’s public opposition, leading the Wildcats to a 3-8 season even though his players had his back.

“We tried harder just to embarrass the governor,” safety Andy Molls told The Washington Post the next season, when the Wildcats were on their way to an 0-10-1 record under new coach Jerry Claiborne, the Kentucky alum whom the school had lured away from the University of Maryland. He was eventually able to lead the Wildcats to a 9-3 record in 1984 but never won more than six games in the five seasons that followed.

As for Brown, his four-year term as Kentucky’s governor — commonwealth laws at the time prohibited governors from serving more than four years in a row — was marked by health problems and allegations of financial impropriety. He ran again for governor again in 1987, and lost.

Jarvis reports that Justice, who was voted into office in November after amassing billions as a businessman, has summoned both Marshall President Jerome Gilbert and five members of the school’s Board of Governors to his office on separate occasions to demand that the school get rid of Holliday and hire Pruett, who is 73 and last was a head coach in 2004. Blessed with the good fortune to inherit Randy Moss from his predecessor, Pruett led the Herd to an undefeated season and the Division I-AA title in 1996. Marshall moved up to college football’s top level the next season, and the winning continued: Pruett amassed a 94-23 record in nine seasons.

“The ‘nine’ is critical to those who believe he is worthy of the College Football Hall of Fame — it takes a minimum 10 seasons for a head coach to be so honored,” Jarvis writes, adding that Justice, a Marshall alum, also wants the board to fire Gilbert and Athletic Director Mike Hamrick for good measure.

Justice’s chief of staff denied the report.

“It was not a meeting to say, ‘Fire the coach and hire Pruett,’ ” Nick Casey told Jarvis. “It was a meeting to say, ‘Ratchet up your game and do something to get yourself back to greatness.’ ”

Marshall went 33-8 with three straight bowl wins under Holliday from 2013 to 2015 but slumped to 3-9 last season. Clearly, it’s a crisis worthy of the governor’s attention.