With record covid-19 hospitalizations and lowest-in-the-nation vaccination rates, the governor of West Virginia has a lot on his plate.

But in recent weeks, Gov. Jim Justice (R) has been lobbying furiously for another job as a high school basketball coach. When some suggested he did not have the time, he took it personally.

He filed a grievance with state government over a local education board’s 3-to-2 vote against hiring him, asserting that his qualifications “tower above those of any other applicant.” This week, with the fallout growing, Justice said he was withdrawing as a candidate — but insisted in a fiery statement that “everyone believes unanimously that if we proceed to court, Jim Justice will be the head boys’ basketball coach.”

“Does the hate of these Board members hurt?” he wrote. “Of course, it does.”

The blowup over athletics at Greenbrier East High School — where Justice already coaches girls basketball — follows much scrutiny of Justice’s entanglements outside governing over his nearly five years in office. The billionaire owns coal mines and a casino that have sparked concerns about possible conflicts of interest, along with a resort that employs a schools superintendent who backed his coaching candidacy.

For months, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) has used a mix of warnings and incentives to plead with residents to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The fight over youth basketball in Lewisburg, W.Va., has left some constituents marveling at the governor’s audacity.

“I’m kind of offended that he doesn’t think the governor’s office deserves a full-time governor,” said Brentz Thompson, a longtime Lewisburg resident who said he has no stake in Greenbrier High but felt compelled to attend a recent Greenbrier Board of Education meeting and voice his concerns. A Republican, he finds much to like in Justice but said this "didn’t have to be brouhaha.”

His message for board members: “I’m embarrassed for the situation the governor has put you in. And I want you to know that a lot of people I’ve talked with in the area think that you did the right thing. … And I know that you have been pressured.

One member of the boys basketball team argued on the day of the board vote last month that players deserve a coach who makes all their practices. Parents have spoken out, too.

“How — why is it that the governor of West Virginia in the worst pandemic since the Spanish flu in 1918 — how was he ever even considered for the first basketball coaching job, much less the second head boys basketball job for a AAAA school?” one woman, Stephanie Lilly, asked at yet another board meeting, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. But a lawyer who represented Justice in his grievance said in an interview that while Justice has “made clear that his duties as governor come first,” he believes he can coach, too.

“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,” said the attorney, Michael Carey. “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.”

Justice’s grievance details his passion for student athletics in Lewisburg, where he lives about 75 miles from the state capital: He coached the girls basketball team to the 2012 state championship; he has never cut a player who tried out; he also guided Greenbrier boys basketball for years — retiring in 2017 after he became governor.

When former boys coach Vernal “Bimbo” Coles stepped down this summer and moved to Florida, Justice sought to return.

“It’s a full-time job,” Coles told the Gazette-Mail last month, as Justice argued he could take it on.

The school’s principal said in August that Justice was the “unanimous choice” of an interview team that included the athletic director. But the governor’s comments to the West Virginia MetroNews raised fresh concerns.

“At my age, I’ll have to have great assistant coaches,” Justice assured the paper. “And to be perfectly honest, they’ll have to do the work. I’ll coach the game.”

A MetroNews columnist soon weighed in skeptically, noting rising coronavirus cases and a host of other challenges facing the state: “West Virginia may be a small state but serving as the chief executive is a full-time position. That was never truer than now.”

Justice’s supporters have pushed back. Some of his resort employees and others appeared at a board meeting to sing his praises, the Gazette-Mail reported. The school district’s superintendent, Jeff Bryant — who is also the entertainment director at Justice’s resort — recommended Justice as well and said his job at the Greenbrier resort does not hinder his work in the county’s schools.

Bryant wrote in an email to The Post on Wednesday that he has “not observed a change in Coach Justice’s time commitment and total vested interest in the Lady Spartan Basketball Team, which is supported by their winning record and community support.”

The athletic director did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday, nor did the president of the education board. Another board member said he and his colleagues were advised by a lawyer not to talk. The lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Thompson, the Lewisburg retiree who criticized Justice’s coaching bid before the board, said many in the community agree with him — even coming up to him at church this past Sunday to say so. Now, as the spat garners national news coverage, Thompson is hoping the whole thing will just fade away.

The governor said he wants to move on as well: “I refuse to spend time fighting HATE,” Justice wrote in the letter announcing his withdrawal Tuesday.

“My Dad said over and over to me that ‘you should never try to teach an elephant to sing — the elephant will never be able to do it and you’ll only frustrate yourself,” he said. “I don’t have time to be frustrated.”

Read more: