USF's Miller denied incident 'to protect' Leavitt
TAMPA - University of South Florida sophomore football player Joel Miller denied to investigators that Coach Jim Leavitt slapped him because he didn't want the coach to lose his job, his attorney said Sunday. "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." An independent investigator hired by the university found that Leavitt grabbed Miller by the throat and slapped him during halftime of the Nov. 21 game against the University of Louisville. The report's conclusions were based on eyewitness accounts from two of Miller's teammates. "A lot of information is going around and we just decided to get an attorney," said Paul Miller, the player's father.The university fired Leavitt on Friday. Paul Miller wouldn't comment further on the hiring of Cohen, and Joel Miller couldn't be reached for comment. "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." Leavitt repeatedly has denied striking Miller. Although Miller's friends said in news reports that Miller told them he was struck by Leavitt, the player denied it in an interview with ESPN and to school investigators. "He (Joel Miller) didn't do anything wrong," Cohen said. "He was a victim of this thing. He tried to protect his coach. He was disappointed the coach didn't tell the truth." Cohen met with the family for several hours on Saturday. "The coach was responsible for it going this far," Cohen said. "He should have admitted what he did." Once the story broke last month, Joel Miller said Leavitt grabbed only his shoulder pads. "Me and Coach Leavitt are fine," Miller said in the ESPN interview. "People can say different things, but he only grabbed my shoulder pads to motivate me because he's a passionate guy. He never apologized because he had nothing to apologize for." Cohen wouldn't discuss the possibility of a civil lawsuit. "I'm going to go where the evidence takes me," Cohen said. "The boy is a great kid. He's very upset over the situation." USF spokesman Michael Hoad said he thought it was a good thing Miller retained someone to give him advice. "I don't see any problem with him getting somebody to give him counsel," Hoad said.
Reporter José Patiño Girona can be reached at (813) 259-7659.