Roughly 800 miles south of Greenbrier East High School, Vernell “Bimbo” Coles is pursuing a new opportunity.
About five weeks ago, with little fanfare, the former Virginia Tech star and ex-NBA player tendered his resignation as Greenbrier East boys basketball coach following a 10-4 finish last season. He and his family have moved to Florida, where his son Bailee is attending Field of Dreams Sports Academy and playing basketball. Coles described it as the “perfect opportunity” for him and his family.
“I could have been there part-time,” Coles said of his Greenbrier East coaching job, “but the kids deserve so much more than me being there half the time. Even during the season, I could have been there for games, but there would be times during the week where I’d miss practice, and as a coach you need to be there for all the practices, not running around doing other jobs.”
That view is not shared by Coles’ potential successor, whose other jobs include serving as governor of West Virginia, overseeing a vast business empire and coaching the Greenbrier East girls.
County schools Superintendent Jeff Bryant has recommended Jim Justice to replace Coles. Justice coached both the Greenbrier East boys and girls for seven seasons before resigning from the boys job in 2017 after taking office as governor.
Now, Justice has decided that while leading the state through another surge of an historic pandemic, he also can take on the second coaching job he’d deemed one demand too many four years ago.
Justice did not return requests for comment from the Gazette-Mail, the state’s largest newspaper, in keeping with previous practice. He told MetroNews last week that assistant coaches would carry much of the burden if he took over the East boys team.
“I thought a lot about it and everything, surely not to take away from the governorship at all,” the governor said. “The superintendent asked me; the principal, the vice principal, the athletic director all want me to do it. And I know I can do the job. At my age, I’ll have to have great assistant coaches. And to be perfectly honest, they’ll have to do the work. I’ll coach the game. Nevertheless, I love the kids. That’s all there is to it.”
The governor’s vision for leading the boys program strikes a sharp contrast with that described by his predecessor. Coles said he could have coached and worked, “but for me, as a coach, you need to be there 24-7. It’s not just a job. You’re there during basketball season. It’s getting the kids in the weight room, getting the kids to get extra shots up, getting the kids to play travel ball. It’s just so much more than just showing up and saying you’re the coach just by showing up.”
Although Justice appeared to consider his hiring sealed, the school Board of Education voted 5-0 Tuesday to table a decision on the move.
His hiring was recommended by Bryant, who, like Justice, has an array of duties beyond serving as a chief executive. Bryant has served as the director of entertainment at The Greenbrier resort, which the governor and his family own, according to a bio on the website of First Baptist Church of Fairlea, where the school superintendent serves as choir director and song leader. The church bio describes Bryant’s “ministry as worship leader” as “invaluable.”
Bryant did not return calls for comment.
Neither Rick Parker nor Mary Humphreys, the only school board members available for comment, said they were concerned about Bryant’s role at The Greenbrier posing a conflict with his recommendation of the governor for the boys basketball job.
A retired Greenbrier East social studies teacher, Humphreys said teachers and other county school employees work part-time at The Greenbrier when school’s out during the summer.
The board met in private for 90 minutes Tuesday before tabling the decision on the boys coaching job until the panel’s next regular meeting.
“It was very contentious,” Parker said. “That’s the reason we tabled it. That’s about all I’ll say.”
At one point, two board members, Kay Smith and Parker, both retired Greenbrier County elementary school teachers, returned to the regular meeting area for a few minutes before rejoining the closed-door session.
At the time, the next regular meeting was set for Sept. 14. The board since has scheduled meetings for Wednesday and Aug. 23. During the latter meeting, Parker said, the board is likely to reconsider the motion to hire Justice.
Smith wasn’t available for comment for this story. Earlier last week, she declined to indicate how she might vote on Justice’s hiring.
Parker referred the Gazette-Mail to comments he made to MetroNews, saying he didn’t plan to support Justice’s rehiring as boys coach because of concerns about “time constraints.”
MetroNews reported Parker “indicated pressure was clear” to hire Justice: “What I can tell you about Mr. Justice is he is quite explicit at times.”
Parker and Humphreys said they have not heard from Justice since the meeting.
“We really do have a good school system, even though turmoil sometimes comes around,” Humphreys said. “Personally, and I think it’s true of all of the board members, we do really try to do what’s best for the kids. Ultimately that’s why I’m there. I’m not there for me. I’m there for the kids. … Sometimes you can’t please everybody. You just can’t.”
Parker, in his first term on the board, told the Gazette-Mail he’d supported Justice in past elections, but this time is different.
“Every once in a while,” Parker told the Gazette-Mail, “you have to do what your conscience tells you to do.”
The board decided 3-2 in 2010 to hire Justice as boys coach, with Smith and Hazel Reed voting against the move.
In 2012, Justice and his children James “Jay” Justice III and Jillean Justice Long each donated $500 to Tina Dunbar’s campaign for a board seat. Reed was one of two incumbents Dunbar challenged. Dunbar was an assistant girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East for Justice at the time.
If Smith and Reed voted against Justice again, along with Parker, the governor would fall short of the majority needed to get the job.
That would leave him and the public more time to focus attention on the governor’s battles in the courts rather than on them.
The Justices’ Bluestone Resources Inc. sued Britain-based Greensill Capital earlier this year over $850 million in loans the governor personally guaranteed. The Justices also have sued Carter Bank claiming its executives schemed to cause the family to default on hundreds of millions of dollar in loans.
Last month, state Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, wrote a letter to Justice suggesting the governor resign because his attention was too divided. Justice, like Smith, is a Republican.
Justice settled a lawsuit in February filed by former Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, who accused the governor of violating the state constitution by residing in Lewisburg rather than Charleston. Justice agreed to “reside” in Charleston. State taxpayers paid $110,921.60 in attorneys’ fees on behalf of Justice in the case.
Amid the furor over whether the governor will succeed him, Coles is working for Eagle Vision Surveillance, a smart security service provider, and living in Naples, a roughly two-and-a-half-hour drive from Field of Dreams Academy in Tampa. The decision to leave after four seasons as coach was entirely his own, he said.
“I’m not going to let the people on the Board of Education in Greenbrier County or Jim Justice determine if I was going to coach or not,” Coles said. “I had the job, and I could have stayed.”
For Coles, that would have required a commitment he no longer was prepared to provide.
“You need to be there for the kids,” he said, “It’s a full-time job for me, and the kids deserve that.’’
Staff writer Rick Ryan contributed to this report.