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Gov. Jim Justice and one of his top aides denied on Thursday allegations that Justice has privately tried to shake up Marshall University's football coaching staff and athletic department.
Nick Casey, the governor's chief of staff, confirmed that Justice met with five members of the school's board of governors on March 28, but he said the governor did not pressure them to oust head football coach Doc Holliday and to hire his longtime friend, and former Herd coach, Bobby Pruett.
"He told them that Marshall was starting to sag, that they were losing their research, they're down in funding, down in athletics and they're getting to be inconsequential, Casey said. "He said if they don't turn it around, they would become like a community college.
The Gazette-Mail reported Thursday that a source said Justice asked Marshall President Jerome Gilbert during a December meeting to fire Holliday and hire Pruett. Then in the March meeting, the source said, Justice asked members of the board of governors to fire Holliday, Gilbert and Athletic Director Mike Hamrick. The source asked to remain anonymous.
Casey did not comment on what Justice and Gilbert talked about in the December meeting.
As Justice campaigned last year to be the Democratic nominee for governor, Pruett appeared in a commercial supporting him and was at his side at numerous campaign stops.
Casey's denial came immediately after a theatrical news conference where Justice vetoed the Legislature's plan to balance the state's budget, during which Justice compared the plan to a pile of bull excrement, complete with a real prop. Justice, surrounded by aides, rushed out of the Capitol Rotunda where the news conference was being held, and did not open himself up to questions from the crowd of reporters there.
Casey said he was with the governor during the meeting with the board members in March. After it concluded, Casey said, the five board members went by themselves to a private room to discuss the meeting.
Casey said nothing Justice said during the meeting could be taken to mean that he wants the board to fire the three men, but that he asked the board members to "pick up their game.
"There's no way to misconstrue what the governor said to the board members, unless they don't understand English, Casey said.
Speaking to more than one television news show Thursday evening, Justice said he didn't call for Holliday to be replaced by Pruett and characterized reports alleging he did as "silliness.
"What I was trying to do was address many facets of what we ought to do. It broke my heart to watch us with Western Kentucky [University] on TV and the stands - with two people in the stands. I'm a guy that speaks my mind, Justice told WOWK. "They are the people who make the decisions. I'm too smart to say, I'm going to withhold funding,' or, I'm going to give you more funding.' It's crazy.
When Marshall faced the WKU Hilltoppers in November, it lost 60-6.
When Pruett was at Marshall, Justice said, the program was in its glory days. Pruett's 1999 team, led by quarterback Chad Pennington, finished 12-0 and ranked 10th in both major polls following the season.
Pruett was 94-23 in nine seasons at MU, from 1996-2004. 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.
On the eve of 2005 spring practice, Pruett resigned his position, simply saying, "It's time. Among the theories at the time was his frustration with the administration over facility improvements, but he never publicly stated his reason.
Pruett famously campaigned for Marshall to leave the Mid-American Conference for Conference USA, which happened beginning in the 2005-06 academic year, and to play West Virginia University in football, which happened from 2006-12. But Pruett did not stick around to participate in any of that.
His tenure was tinged - some say tainted - by an NCAA investigation into academic fraud and improper benefits to freshman nonqualifiers. Indeed, on the day after the 2001 GMAC Bowl, the NCAA announced sanctions against the program, which included reductions in scholarships. The NCAA cited MU for lack of institutional control.
MU's compliance director, David Ridpath, was reassigned shortly afterward, and felt he was a scapegoat. He sued Pruett, the university and others, in an attempt to clear his name. The case had a jurisdiction question sent to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and dragged on six years before the university settled for $200,000.
Hamrick said he is proud of how Holliday has led the team.
Holliday said the governor's alleged attempts to get him fired made him unhappy.
"I'm sad. I think it's sad, to be honest with you, sad day for everybody. That being said, I'm only concerned about this football team, and my job is to get this football team, be around these kids and love these kids and get them better and become a better football team, and that's the only thing I'm worried about.
Pruett did not return multiple calls from the Gazette-Mail.
"Athletics puts you in the news, Justice told WOWK. "Academics doesn't put you on the cover of Rolling Stone - athletics does.
Since Pruett left Marshall, Justice told the television station, the school has gotten off track. Compare that to WVU, Justice said - because of the leadership of President Gordon Gee, that school is exploding with growth.
Gilbert would not comment for this report, saying in the Gazette-Mail's initial report that he said he wants to maintain a good relationship with the governor.
In light of the newspaper's report, Marshall's faculty senate unanimously approved a resolution on Thursday asking Justice to not interfere in the board's governance nor the school's daily operations, according to Shawn Schulenberg, a member of the faculty senate.
The chairman of the school's board of governors, Wyatt Scaggs, again would not detail what the board members talked with Justice about in March. He said Thursday morning, before Justice's news conference on the budget, that he and other university officials were too concerned about whether the governor would veto the Republican spending plan.
"We're focused on the current budget situation and what additional severe cuts would mean for Marshall, said Ginny Painter, a spokeswoman for the school. "It's a critical juncture for higher education in West Virginia, and that is where we are spending our time and energy.
Had Justice not vetoed House Bill 2018, the plan that lawmakers in the House of Delegates and Senate passed last weekend, the school stood to lose more than $8 million in state funding, Gilbert said in a news release. That large of a cut would be almost half the $11.5 million the school's state funding has already been cut since 2013.
If Marshall's appropriations would be cut that much, according to the release, the school likely would need to sharply raise tuition and charge in-state students $1,000 a year to cover the cut.
"Significant cuts would have forced us to consider major restructuring of our programs and academic units, and to look at the possibility of layoffs of faculty and staff, having already eliminated 16 percent of our staff and administrative positions through attrition to deal with the budget cuts over the past few years, Gilbert said in the release. "All these things would negatively impact the quality of the education and services we can offer our students.
Staff writer Doug Smock contributed to this story.
Reach Jake Jarvis at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-7939, Facebook.com/newsroomjake or follow @NewsroomJake on Twitter.
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