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Justice meetings with MU officials stir drama


The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Meetings between Gov. Jim Justice and Marshall University officials have cultivated a flurry of questions about the governor’s engagement with operations at the university.

While none of the people involved in the meetings have been willing to talk about the specific content of their conversations, media outlets have reported Justice has been advocating the firing of Marshall head football coach Doc Holliday in favor of replacing him with former Marshall football coach Bobby Pruett.

The Herald-Dispatch previously reported Justice met with Marshall President Jerome Gilbert at The Greenbrier resort on Dec. 4, 2016, and on Wednesday Marshall University Board of Governors President Wyatt Scaggs confirmed Justice invited him and other board members to the Capitol for a meeting two weeks ago.

Justice is the first governor in the state’s history to have both of his college degrees from Marshall.

When the West Virginia Legislature celebrated Marshall Day at the Capitol on March 30, Justice told The Herald-Dispatch that he loved Marshall, but he wanted more for his alma mater and he brought up Pruett’s name without prompt.

“I personally believe we need a rejuvenation of excitement at Marshall,” Justice said. “In the Pruett days, we rivaled (West Virginia University), and we had two universities within our state that were good. Marshall was closing the gap. So whether it be academically or athletically, whatever, we have slipped, and WVU has exploded to the upside.”

Pruett and former WVU head football coach Don Nehlen were fixtures of Justice’s gubernatorial campaign as far back as August 2015. Pruett and Justice both grew up in Beckley, attending Woodrow Wilson High School and Marshall.

Pruett, 73, resigned as Marshall’s football coach just before the start of the spring 2005 practice season after serving nine seasons leading the Thundering Herd. Pruett left four months ahead of Marshall’s Conference USA debut with a record of 94-23.

Holliday, who turns 60 later this month, was hired as Marshall’s head football coach in December 2009 and has a 53-37 record over six seasons with the team.

On Wednesday, Scaggs said he couldn’t remember the exact date he and other board members went to the Capitol to meet with Justice. Media outlets reported the meeting as taking place March 28, the same week Gilbert was visiting Starkville, Mississippi, to be inducted as a Distinguished Fellow in the Bagley College of Engineering at Mississippi State University.

Scaggs didn’t comment on the specific topics of conversation he and board members had with Justice, but he said they talked about “a number of issues regarding Marshall.”

“We talked about higher education in West Virginia, our common goals for Marshall and its programs,” Scaggs said. “The governor has been a loyal alumni and supporter of Marshall, and his wife and daughter both are alums. We’re grateful for his support.”

Scaggs said Gilbert had “100 percent” support of board members.

Marshall University’s Vice President of Communications Ginny Painter told The Herald-Dispatch on Dec. 16, 2016, that Gilbert had met with Justice on Dec. 4.

Speaking through Painter, Gilbert characterized the topics of discussion as “wide ranging.”

“I was pleased to meet with the incoming governor and have the opportunity to talk to him about a variety of topics,” Gilbert said in December. “The details of our conversation are private, but I can say I was encouraged by his interest in higher education and his support of Marshall University. We have a common purpose, and that is the success and growth of Marshall University.”

Marshall University Athletics officials declined to comment Wednesday, but Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick in December gave his take following reports about the meeting between Gilbert and Justice.

“Jim has been one of our significant supporters,” Hamrick told The Herald-Dispatch last Dec. 16. “He is a former student-athlete at Marshall. It’s good that he cares about not only Marshall University, but the athletic program in particular.”

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