WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Saints coach Sean Payton, flanked by reporters, was in the midst of his first media conference of training camp at The Greenbrier the other day when his remarks were interrupted by a shrill whistle and a familiar clack, clack, clack sound from the valley below.
“Is that a train?’’ Payton asked, almost bemused. “Not that we want to, but if there’s a guy who can stop that, it’s Jim Justice. Trust me, he can stop it.’’
More powerful than a locomotive? In some respects, I suppose, Jim Justice shares similarities with Superman.
Look at what the Greenbrier County billionaire businessman has done in just the last five years.
He’s saved The Greenbrier resort, one of the state’s great landmarks, from bankruptcy and restored its legacy.
He brought big-time PGA Tour golf inside West Virginia’s borders, and not just Tiger and Phil and the like for a few days each summer. Multiple major winners such as Bubba Watson and Nick Faldo have bought property on The Greenbrier grounds, and another, Tom Watson, serves as the resort’s pro emeritus, along with his status as Ryder Cup captain and slayer of Father Time.
And now Justice has lured an honest-to-goodness NFL team to our fair state. And not just any NFL team, but one that recently won a Super Bowl, still features the same title-winning quarterback-coach combination in Drew Brees and Payton and sports one of the game’s great offenses.
The still-wet-behind-the-uprights facility that cost $30 million and sprang up in four months has been getting rave reviews from players, coaches and media members alike.
If the New Orleans Saints wind up as impressed as the PGA Tour (and odds again favor Jimmy J), they’ll train here for a while. Perhaps longer than their reported three-year agreement.
Remember that in 2012, after just two years at Old White TPC (and pre-Tiger Woods), the PGA Tour extended its agreement with The Greenbrier Classic six more years through 2021, making it the longest commitment for any event on the Tour.
And don’t forget the big-name music acts that Justice has snagged as part of the Greenbrier Classic weekend — diverse acts that in many cases might not appear anywhere else in West Virginia. Alphabetically, that would include Aerosmith, Black Eyed Peas, Bon Jovi, Jimmy Buffett, Maroon 5, Rod Stewart and a litany of country stars — Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Reba and Carrie Underwood.
Take a step back and think about it. Without Justice, that doesn’t happen.
Besides changing attitudes about the state, in many ways Justice has helped transform West Virginia from strictly minor-league status to one that now dabbles in big-league attractions.
And not all of his magic takes place at The Greenbrier.
Recall his work as the director of the annual basketball showcase in Beckley, formerly known as the Mountain State Coal Classic and now called the Big Atlantic Classic.
He annually attracts nationally known prep basketball power teams like Oak Hill Academy (Va.), which has toted soon-to-be-well-known names such as Carmelo Anthony.
Just as star-studded is the list of athletes and coaches who have made the pilgrimage to Beckley in late January to serve as keynote speakers for the tournament’s tipoff banquet.
That list resembles a who’s who in sports for last 30 years and beyond — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Julius Erving, Lou Holtz, Hot Rod Hundley, Bo Jackson, Cam Newton, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Tebow, Dick Vitale, Bill Walton and last (alphabetically) but certainly not least, Jerry West.
Oh yeah, and in his spare time Justice coached Greenbrier East’s girls basketball team to a Class AAA state title two years ago, the program’s first championship since 1981.
When events of the Greenbrier’s turnaround were recounted to him Saturday evening, Justice, ever the businessman, wanted to make sure the resort’s other recent accomplishments weren’t forgotten — the Champions Tennis Classic featuring Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, the Greenbrier casino, Fizzy’s Land of Oz toy store and new restaurants like Prime 44 West (the Jerry West steakhouse) and the Forum.
“When we started out Day 1,’’ Justice said, “we wanted to keep the elegance [of The Greenbrier], the tradition, the history, but we wanted to infuse energy, too, with all that. You’ve got to have the energy.
“It was a big undertaking to turn it around — a huge undertaking, way bigger than we knew at the time. But that being said, as more time elapses, things are going well now. But a lot of people deserve credit other than me.’’
The dust, literally, has barely settled on the Saints’ training facility, but you just know that’s not going to be the last we hear from Justice and The Greenbrier.
What’s he going to do for an encore this time? You know he never sits on his laurels too long.
“There might be something else coming up soon,’’ he said. “We continue to work on things we want to do. My dad always said if you can’t do it in 24 hours, you’d better work nights.
“We have the passion and we have the enthusiasm for what we’re doing and I thank the good Lord every day for His blessings that enable us to do what we do.’’
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or email@example.com.