Miller says he covered up Leavitt incident
TAMPA - University of South Florida walk-on football player Joel Miller, his voice unwavering, was direct Thursday morning. At halftime of a Nov. 21 home game against Louisville, Miller said he was attacked by Bulls coach Jim Leavitt, who was incensed by the player's missed block on special teams. "He grabbed me by the neck and hit me twice," Miller said. Miller said he was relieved to finally tell the truth. He admitted lying nearly one month ago to USF investigators and an ESPN reporter, then claiming the incident with Leavitt amounted to nothing, a failed attempt to protect his embattled coach, who was fired Jan. 8. "I covered it up, then it got where it was too big for me to handle anymore," said Miller, flanked by his newly retained attorney, Barry Cohen. "All I want is for the truth to come out. I want for Coach Leavitt to admit that he did grab me and he did hit me twice."Cohen said it wasn't about a lawsuit. It wasn't about money. "I'm practically begging this coach to do the right thing," Cohen said. "It's about this man telling the truth. We want a public apology. We're waiting to hear what he says." Miller might have a long wait. One of Leavitt's Palm Harbor-based attorneys, Wil Florin, said no apology is planned. "Why would he apologize for something he didn't do?" said Florin, who was present Monday when Leavitt passionately reiterated his innocence, saying he never struck Miller. "There's too much at stake here. I don't want to get into (what) Joel Miller (said), but clearly he is under a lot of pressure from a lot of people." Reached Thursday afternoon and asked about Miller's comments, Leavitt was evasive and said, "We're handling it ... we're handling it," before hanging up. Cohen said he would like contrition from Leavitt within "a reasonable amount of time" - a week to 10 days. If not? "Steve Romine (Cohen's partner) and I may not know much about football, but we know a hell of a lot about hardball," said Cohen, hinting at potential litigation. "We don't want to play hardball. But we can and we will." Florin said he was still hopeful Leavitt could retain his job - a possibility that was apparently exhausted when USF's position remained unchanged one day after Leavitt's post-termination hearing. The school later announced the hiring of East Carolina's Skip Holtz as head coach. Thursday afternoon, further details emerged about the Leavitt-Miller incident. Miller read a statement at the news conference, but Cohen prohibited him from taking questions. Later, Cohen granted access to Brett McMurphy, a reporter for AOL FanHouse, who broke the first story about the incident Dec. 14. Miller told FanHouse: •Shortly after midnight Dec. 17, several hours after his interview with USF investigators, he arrived at a church parking lot for a pre-arranged meeting with Leavitt. The coach initially asked Miller to e-mail his testimony to his wife's e-mail account - immune from a public-records search - but instead the player typed his information on a sheet of paper and handed it over. "We talked and collaborated about it," Miller said. •That Leavitt described a confrontation he once had with a coach. Miller said Leavitt told him, "My coach hit me and knocked me to the ground and I was so mad at him. He was like, 'Well, leave, Jim, leave.' I wanted to fight with him." Leavitt also told Miller, "You'll look back 20-30 years on this and be thanking me." •That "everyone in the USF athletics building, including athletic director Doug Woolard" was aware of the incident. Miller said some USF players even talked about the incident with Louisville players during stoppages of play in the Nov. 21 game. Michael Hoad, USF's vice president of communications, told The Tampa Tribune late Thursday that he believes Woolard was not aware of the incident prior to the publication of the original FanHouse story. "On the day the original FanHouse article appeared, Doug was out of town on a trip and learned about it by telephone," Hoad said. "His immediate reaction was to start an extensive investigation, externally and internally. "I do not think he knew anything about this until that day. Joel never came to Doug Woolard with any of this." Miller also told FanHouse on Thursday he was intimidated by Leavitt's power and shaken by taunts from accusing fans. "Everyone was saying I was a sissy. I was a liar. You got a great coach fired. You dance ballet.' ... This was real hard for me, because I wasn't allowed to say anything," Miller said. "There are Leavitt fans out there who think he is God. I'm just a walk-on. Just because I'm a walk-on, they're going to blame me. He's been (at USF 13 years). I've been there two. As the public sees it, it's all my fault."
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.