Sources: South Florida Coach Jim Leavitt Struck Player
The incident involved sophomore walk-on Joel Miller that stemmed from Leavitt being upset over Miller's first-half mistake on special teams, according to witnesses. Leavitt, who was out of town Monday recruiting, would not comment specifically about the incident when reached on his cell phone.
"I'll visit with you about recruiting," Leavitt said. "All the stuff we do in there [the locker room] ... I'll visit with you about recruiting.
"Things that happen or don't happen usually are kept within the team -- whether they happen or don't happen. If you want to talk about recruiting, I'll talk about recruiting."
According to the five witnesses -- USF players and staff members -- Leavitt was pacing in the Raymond James Stadium locker room at halftime when he walked about 10 feet to the locker where Miller was sitting without his helmet. Leavitt then grabbed Miller by the throat and hit him twice in the face with his hand.
"You do something like that [on the street], you put them in jail," Paul Miller, Joel's father and a former Tampa police officer, told FanHouse. "Somewhere [Leavitt] crossed the line."
" You do something like that [on the street], you put them in jail. "
-- Paul Miller, father of south florida player Joel Miller
A South Florida spokesman said the school would review the allegation.
"The University of South Florida is aware of the story and will review the matter promptly," said Michael Hoad, vice president for communication. "We're committed to ensuring due process for everyone involved. To ensure fairness, the university doesn't comment during a review."
The witnesses all talked to FanHouse on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared Leavitt would remove them from scholarship or they might lose their job. Joel Miller's teammates and his high school coach said Miller told them he wouldn't go public because he feared retribution and would be dismissed from the team.
"He really wants to play football," said David Mitchell, who was Miller's head coach at Tampa's Wharton High School. "He told me he's concerned if he says something [to the administration] 'I won't be able to play football. If I don't [say anything], I will be able to keep playing football.'
"The message I left with him when I spoke with him was: 'If you don't say anything, it's going to occur again to other players.' This was way over the line."
Miller refused comment when contacted by FanHouse Sunday night. "I'd rather not speak about it right now," Miller said. "There are a lot of things going on. I have no comment about this situation."
Miller told teammates he did not notify athletic director Doug Woolard about the incident. It's unknown if Woolard, who immediately did not return a phone call seeking comment, was aware of the incident that the entire team and staff knew had occurred.
Two days after the incident, Miller told his father, teammates and staff members he went to Leavitt's office to discuss the incident. Instead, Miller left feeling disrespected, threatened and intimidated, according to his teammates.
"Coach I want to talk to you about what happened," Joel told Leavitt on Nov. 23.
"Before you say anything," said Leavitt, according to what Miller told others in USF's program and his father, "just know I am the most powerful man in this building."
USF's football offices are located in the USF Athletic Facilities building along with USF's entire athletics department administrative staff, including Woolard.
Leavitt's only recent public comments about Miller (pictured) came in his weekly news conference Dec. 1. Responding to a special teams question, Leavitt talked about USF's "poor special teams" and mentioned some penalties, including one by Miller. "Miller had one [penalty] two games ago [against Louisville] that was a penalty and should have been called," Leavitt said.
On the afternoon of Dec. 3 -- nearly two weeks after the incident -- Leavitt left messages on Miller's cell phone, wanting to meet with him. They met in his office where Leavitt apologized, according to what Miller told his father, teammates and staff members. Ironically, Leavitt's 12-day old apology came one day after Kansas coach Mark Mangino resigned amid an investigation into his treatment of his players, including verbal abuse or having inappropriate physical contact with his players.
Leavitt and Mangino were assistants together at Kansas State from 1991-95.
Mitchell, who has been coaching 27 years including the last 13 at Wharton High School, said he would not recommend any more of his players to play for Leavitt at USF.
"I would not send a kid where he will be humiliated or mistreated," Mitchell said. "It [playing for Leavitt] is like knowing someone is considering buying a bad car. You tell them 'It doesn't run, it's no good, don't buy it.' If they still decide to, they have to live with that decision. But at least I let them know how bad it was."
Leavitt, who is 94-47 overall and 17-18 in the Big East as the only coach in the program's 13-year existence, never mentioned the incident to the team. Leavitt is completing the second year of a seven-year contract worth $12.6 million. He will make $1.6 million this year, plus incentives.
"That's another thing I thought about a lot," a witness said. "He knows everyone knows, so for him not to address it to the team is really interesting. He knows his staff and all the players are talking about it. Why wouldn't my head coach talk to me about it?"
When the incident occurred in the locker room, one witness said he couldn't believe it.
"I was thinking 'am I really seeing this?' " a player said. "I've never felt wronged by [Leavitt], he's done nothing but help me, but when I witnessed that, I was like 'this is bull----.'
"If he would have grabbed another player like that, they would have done something, but he knew he could do something like that and Joel wouldn't fight back."
Added a staff member: "We've had our ups and downs this year, but in that particular case, that was a different situation."
The witnesses all said Leavitt was upset at Miller because he made a mistake on special teams in the first half.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Miller, who played at Wharton High School located about 10 miles from USF, decided to walk on to USF instead of accept a scholarship offer to a smaller FBS school. In two seasons at USF, he has played in 21 games, almost exclusively on special teams, and has 11 tackles.
Paul Miller, who has spoken to FanHouse on five occasions since Dec. 1, said he initially didn't want to disclose what happened because his son "just wants to play football. But at the same time, as a father, I'm very upset.
"If [Joel is] a whistle-blower, people say that they stand behind him and then they push everyone behind him. You still suffer some consequences. He's a helluva football player. He just wants to play."
Leavitt's contract indicates he may be terminated with cause for "a finding of a serious, major or intentional violation by Coach of the Athletic Rules" or suspended with pay if a "charge has been initiated against Coach; a formal inquiry or charge is pending ... concerning any alleged major, significant or repeated violation of Athletic Rules by the Coach."
The witnesses had mixed opinions on what, if any, punishment Leavitt should receive.
"That's a tough question," one witness said. "I don't see that as means or grounds for losing his job, but at the same time, they need to take whatever means necessary to make sure that doesn't happen here again."
Another witness felt it was grounds for dismissal. "You can't grab someone like that in any profession," the witness said. "Why should he get different standards?"
USF, which finished 7-5, 3-4 in the Big East, will play Northern Illinois in the International Bowl on Jan. 2 in Toronto.
Contact FanHouse reporter Brett McMurphy at firstname.lastname@example.org