Leavitt says USF ignored key witnesses in firing him
TAMPA - University officials ignored witnesses who backed up Jim Leavitt's account of a halftime confrontation that led to his firing, the former USF football coach says in a lawsuit. In its investigation of allegations that Leavitt choked and slapped a player, the university "intentionally misrepresented, marginalized and diminished" statements by key witnesses, including a Florida state trooper, Leavitt says in the suit. The suit was filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court against USF and the private USF Foundation, which pays part of the football coach's salary. The suit said Leavitt was branded "a liar and a danger to student athletes," denied millions in pay and "unfairly and illegally separated from everything he has ever worked for."USF fired Leavitt on Jan. 8 after a four-week investigation into an incident between Leavitt and walk-on running back Joel Miller during halftime of the Nov. 21 game against Louisville. A university investigation concluded Leavitt grabbed Miller by the throat and struck him in the face. Leavitt insists he did nothing wrong. USF spokeswoman Lara Wade released a statement Monday saying, "the University stands by its decision, and by its report. That report has been public, so there isn't anything to add at this time." Leavitt's suit describes USF's report as a "rambling collection of hearsay/double hearsay statements and hand-selected, non-contextual quotes that, in essence, is a subjective, picked-over, blatantly biased summary by USF." It says Leavitt's firing will cost him $9.5 million, the value of his contract through 2014. Even if it is determined he was fired "with cause," his contract says that he is due $375,000, not the $66,000 USF gave him the day he was fired, the suit says. In addition, the suit says, Leavitt was denied access to investigative documents that administrators used in firing him. He was given "none of the evidence USF has considered and none of the documents or witness statements or reviewers' notes. ..." Leavitt is demanding those documents and says they will prove that he was only trying to encourage Miller and never grabbed his throat or slapped him. The suit says 60 people were in the locker room at the time, but USF reviewers interviewed only 29, some of whom were not there. Meantime, several people who were there and saw the exchange were never questioned. Others questioned and in agreement with Leavitt's account were deemed "not credible," the suit says. The suit names several people near Leavitt and Miller who reported seeing nothing unusual. One is state Trooper Benny Perez, who told reviewers he only saw Leavitt grab Miller's shoulder pads to motivate him. "Trooper Perez was adamant in his statements to the reviewers that Coach Leavitt never choked or slapped this player," the lawsuit says. The lawsuit also quotes sophomore player Jerrell Young, who said he was sitting "across from Joel": "Coach got him by the shoulder pads; said 'Joel, we need you.' It wasn't nothing, no choke or no slap or nothing like that." None of this was included in USF's review, the suit says. In firing Leavitt, USF said he also tried to interfere with the review by having direct contact with witnesses. The suit denies this, saying USF doesn't even have a definition of "interference" in its rules of conduct. It adds that Leavitt was still head coach during the review, required to speak to players and staff. "There is notably no finding or report that Leavitt ever instructed any witness to lie in the review process or to refuse to cooperate," says the suit. The lawsuit also questions how USF put its report together. It "contained no transcripts of witness interviews, no affidavits and no signed statements," the suit says. "Evidently, despite the high-profile and alleged serious nature of the allegations, no witnesses were put under oath or sworn prior to being 'interviewed.'" Leavitt is asking the court to order USF to provide him with all the information gathered during its review. He is also asking for a jury trial on the breach of contract charges. Six days after firing Leavitt, USF replaced him with former East Carolina University coach Skip Holtz, who will begin work with the team Tuesday, when the Bulls' spring practice begins. "I hate why I'm here. I hate the reasons why I'm here. I hate the reasons why this job came open," said Holtz during an appearance at the Shelton Quarles Celebrity Pro-Am golf Tournament. "I've known Coach Leavitt a long time. He's a great person, he's a good football coach, and he's done a phenomenal job of developing this program from its infancy. But from a team standpoint, we've got to put our eyes forward. We've got to look at where we're going. That's the only way we're going to get where we want to be."
Columnist Martin Fennelly contributed to this report.