January 11, 2010
It didn't take much savvy to spot a legal fight coming a mile away last week when South Florida fired Jim Leavitt, the only coach in the program's 14-year history, for allegedly grabbing and slapping a player during halftime of the Bulls' Nov. 21 win over Louisville. But where certain other toppled coaches may be content to go to court to recoup the money in the remainder of their contracts while moving on to the next gig, Leavitt's attorney says the coach is willing to fight for it all -- contract, salary and his old office back:
In a letter from Leavitt's attorney, Thomas D. Roebig Jr., Leavitt maintained that he did not strike a player and that his firing violated the terms of his contract and his state and federal constitutional rights.
In the letter, Roebig pointed out that sophomore Joel Miller, as well as his father, Paul, "both repeatedly denied publicly and during the university's investigation that Coach Leavitt did anything improper."
The termination, Roebig writes, is unwarranted, and Leavitt "deserves to be immediately reinstated in full to his former position."
Leavitt and his attorney are holding a press conference as I write to air those grievances to the public. In his statement to the press, Leavitt said, "The allegations are misreported. ... I am in this for my life, my name, my reputation, my family. ... I want to coach this football team. This is the greatest job in the country. ... I'm going to fight for it. I know it's right. I know it's right in my heart." Leavitt also pointed out that -- besides literally building the program from the ground up -- he's had the opportunity to take higher-paying jobs, but hasn't bitten because "[South Florida] is the best place for Jim Leavitt." This is a serious man.
It is true that the Miller clan has repeatedly backed Leavitt in the press: Joel Miller told ESPN last month that his story had been "misrepresented" and that Leavitt had nothing to apologize for; earlier, Paul Miller called reports of abuse against his son "a bunch of bull---" and insisted he stands behind Leavitt "100 percent." It was Joel Miller's defense of Leavitt, specifically, that seemed to put the coach in the clear when it came to the worst-case scenario.
In the initial report (based on anonymous witnesses) that sparked USF's investigation into the incident, though, Paul Miller told AOL FanHouse, "Somewhere [Leavitt] crossed the line," and implied the coach's action was borderline criminal. ("You do something like that [on the street], you put them in jail.") And the family's attorney went clearly in that direction Sunday when he told the Tampa Tribune that Joel was only trying to save his coach's job when he told investigators and reporters Leavitt hadn't struck him:
"He (Leavitt) hit him," said Tampa attorney Barry Cohen, hired by Miller's family over the weekend. "He was trying to protect this coach earlier, and he didn't tell what actually happened."
"The truth is that he (Leavitt) did hit him and the witnesses saw it," Cohen said. "He (Joel Miller) didn't want the ripple effect if the coach got fired. ... He was a victim of this thing. He tried to protect his coach. He was disappointed the coach didn't tell the truth." (Emphasis added.)
No wonder investigators found Miller's story "unpersuasive" -- his own lawyer now says his denial that Leavitt slapped him was basically a lie, backing up investigators' findings that Leavitt lied to them about whatever it is that actually went down in the locker room.
Thus the soap opera will go on with one guarantee: Whoever is on the short list to replace Leavitt is either directing all of USF's calls to go straight to voice mail or else even more desperate for a head-coaching job -- any head-coaching job -- that he'd sign up for an even more chaotic situation than the one Leavitt took a pay cut to assume back in 1995, when the team didn't even exist. No one is about to sign up for a position if there's even a slight chance his predecessor could force his way back into the fold. (Although Dennis Franchione and Ron Prince don't have a lot going on at the moment ...)
And anyway, is there actually a chance Leavitt could force his way back onto the premises and reassume his old duties after being shown the door? My non-expert legal advice is, "Stay tuned."