Rabalais: Greenbrier owner moves heaven and earth to land Saints

The Greenbrier's owner Jim Justice, left and winner of the 2014 Greenbrier Classic Angel Cabrera with The Greenbrier Classic Springhouse Trophy  at the conclusion of the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Sunday, July 6, 2014.  (AP Photo/Chris Tilley) ORG XMIT: WVCT103
The Greenbrier's owner Jim Justice, left and winner of the 2014 Greenbrier Classic Angel Cabrera with The Greenbrier Classic Springhouse Trophy at the conclusion of the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Sunday, July 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley) ORG XMIT: WVCT103

When Sean Payton speaks, everything else usually stops.

That wasn’t the case for a CSX freight train Thursday, as it rumbled through The Greenbrier resort property less than a football field from where the New Orleans Saints coach was holding court on the first day of training camp.

“Is that a train?” Payton asked, the tracks just out of his view.

“Not that we’d want to, but there is a guy who could stop that: Jim Justice.”

Justice is the West Virginia billionaire who owns The Greenbrier, the man who moved heaven (figuratively) and earth (literally) to build a $30 million football and sports medicine facility worthy of enticing an NFL franchise to hold its training camp here. The man who has more than a passing similarity to the Saints’ major domo.

It is an extraordinary thing to see a man’s dream willed into reality. You can see it in the green football fields the Saints will practice on carved out of the green Allegheny Mountains. You can see it in the Saints team that will practice here, a Super Bowl contender once again, largely because of Payton’s talent and drive.

Justice doesn’t claim to know Payton very well — join The Greenbrier Sporting Club, Jim. But he does know a well- run company when he sees one — he owns 47 of them.

And he likes what he sees of Payton’s operation.

“With all the businesses I’ve got, you’ve got to be able to tell what good timber is,” Justice said in a radio interview here Wednesday. “This guy has got his act together.

“He’s an organizer. He’s meticulous beyond belief. He’s eaten up with enthusiasm and passion. I can’t stand people around me who are sticks in the mud. And he’s a winner. It’s easy to see. You can pick them out.”

Justice, 63, is a coach himself. Despite an empire to run, one that made him worth $1.6 billion according to Forbes.com, he finds the time to coach the Greenbrier East High School boys AND girls basketball teams in nearby Lewisburg.

As one of America’s richest men Justice is used to winning in the board room. His team’s don’t disappoint on the court. The girls team reached the state semifinals last season. The boys reached a regional final and sent two players from the school that produced former NBA star Bimbo Coles to Wake Forest and St. Joseph’s.

As a billionaire should, Justice takes his coaching salary and plows it back into the programs, in addition to making frequent donations to the school.

The Greenbrier may still be in business because Justice bought it, plucking it from bankruptcy by then owner CSX in 2009 with an end run around Marriott. About 1,800 people work at the resort, the single-largest employer in Greenbrier County.

“I can remember the day we spoke on the phone and he had just bought The Greenbrier,” said Greenbrier East principal Jeff Bryant. “He saved this area. He really did. Without The Greenbrier, I don’t know where we’d be. The parents of many of our students work there.”

The paths for Justice and Payton have had their rocky stretches, of course.

Payton had Bountygate, forcing his exile from the Saints for all of the 2012 season. Justice’s primary business is coal, which has struggled of late as an industry. According to Forbes, Justice’s coal operations have been slapped with lawsuits from more than a dozen companies alleging they haven’t paid their bills.

On a day like Wednesday, though, it’s probably easy for Justice to forget such concerns. That was the day the Saints’ charter jet touched down at Lewisburg’s airstrip, greeted by the Greenbrier East band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Bryant was there, playing trumpet. Like many in this ruggedly beautiful state, a state with little hope of ever landing a major pro franchise of any kind, Bryant has been drawn to the excitement of the Saints coming to town.

“It’s almost surreal,” Bryant said. “You think, ‘How is this happening in our little part of the world?

“It’s because of the vision of Mr. Justice — and the Saints.”

From the airport, the Saints paraded in their five motor coaches through Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs to the resort, Justice at the rear of the caravan in a black SUV with a license plate reading “Coal 3.”

If all goes as the Saints hope it does, they will be parading through New Orleans in February, Payton leading the way, holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Like the two men responsible for the Saints training here, there is symmetry to that.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.