Gov. Jim Justice pressured Marshall University leaders in recent months to shake up how the school’s football team is coached, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The governor has sought to oust the head football coach, Doc Holliday, and install his longtime friend and former Herd coach Bobby Pruett, said the source, who requested anonymity.
This time last year, as Justice was campaigning to be the Democratic nominee for governor, Pruett appeared alongside former West Virginia University coach Don Nehlen in a commercial supporting Justice.
“It was not a meeting to say, ‘Fire the coach and hire Pruett,’ ” Justice chief of staff Nick Casey said in a statement Wednesday evening. “It was a meeting to say, ‘Ratchet up your game and do something to get yourself back to greatness.’ ”
Marshall President Jerome Gilbert said he made the trek to White Sulphur Springs on Dec. 4 after Justice, then the governor-elect, asked to speak with him in his office at The Greenbrier. Gilbert said Justice “just wanted to talk” about the school and said he would not disclose what they talked about.
“I probably shouldn’t comment on any of that,” Gilbert said Wednesday evening. “I want to maintain a good relationship with the governor, and it’s unfortunate that this information got out.”
Nearly three months after that meeting, on March 28, Justice summoned five members of the school’s board of governors to his office at the Capitol. Again, Justice reportedly asked the board members to get rid of Holliday.
Justice also asked the board members to fire Gilbert and Athletic Director Mike Hamrick, the man responsible for hiring Holliday, according to the Gazette-Mail’s source.
Neither Pruett nor Hamrick responded to the Gazette-Mail’s requests for comment Wednesday evening.
The five board members who met with Justice in March are Wyatt Scaggs, James Bailes, Oshel Craigo, Tim Dagostine and Christie Kinsey. Gilbert was not present at the meeting, the source said, but knew about the meeting before it took place.
The Gazette-Mail contacted all five of those board members last week — one didn’t return a call and the rest would not comment on the details of the meeting. The board members said all questions should be directed to Scaggs, the chairman of the board.
“We talked about a number of issues,” Scaggs said. “I don’t want to get into the specifics, you know, that were discussed. In general, though, we talked about higher education in West Virginia and our common goal and ideas for Marshall University and our programs.”
Scaggs said it was a good talk and that board members took his ideas to heart. He said he wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the meeting until he had time to discuss it with the rest of the board members at their next meeting.
The board is scheduled to meet again on April 26.
Holliday was hired from West Virginia University’s staff after the 2009 regular season to replace Mark Snyder, who had resigned after a difficult five-year tenure. In 2014, the Herd finished 23rd in The Associated Press poll.
The 2015 season represented a step back, as the Herd finished 10-3. It didn’t reach the Conference USA championship game, but beat Connecticut in the St. Petersburg Bowl.
The Herd collapsed in 2016, finishing 3-9. After a season that finished with a 60-6 loss to Western Kentucky, Holliday vowed that there would be changes in the Herd’s approach. No coaches were fired, but there was some reshuffling in responsibilities.
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.
Pruett’s 1999 team, led by quarterback Chad Pennington, finished 12-0 and ranked 10th in both major polls following.
He was hired from the Florida staff in 1996, and inherited a well-stocked program from Jim Donnan, who went to Georgia. Pruett had the good fortune to inherit the then-troubled Randy Moss, who proved to be a monstrous mismatch for Division I-AA competition. The Herd easily went 15-0 and took the I-AA title.
Justice, and his wife and daughter are all graduates of Marshall.
Sports reporter Doug Smock contributed to this report.