Joel Miller, USF player at center of Jim Leavitt dismissal, dies
Former USF running back Joel Miller, the player at the center of the controversial locker-room incident that cost Bulls coach Jim Leavitt his job, passed away Sunday. He was 29.
Former ESPN college football reporter Brett McMurphy, who covered USF several years for The Tampa Tribune, first reported Mr. Miller's death Sunday evening via Twitter.
The cause of death wasn't immediately known.
"I'm deeply saddened by the passing of Joel," said longtime Wharton assistant Craig Rainey, who coached Mr. Miller at the New Tampa school.
"He was a good young man and tough football player that I had the pleasure to coach. Joel and I kept in touch regularly. I will miss talking with Joel. My thoughts and prayers are with his parents, Kathy and Paul, his brothers, sister and the rest of his family."
Leavitt was accused of grabbing Mr. Miller -- a walk-on -- by the throat and striking him twice in the face during halftime of a game against Louisville in November 2009. Leavitt was fired as Bulls coach after three-week investigation conducted by school.
USF later reached a settlement with Leavitt, paying him $2.75 million to resolve the wrongful termination suit he filed after his dismissal.
A 2007 Wharton High graduate, Mr. Miller ran for more than 2,600 yards his final two prep seasons, winning Hillsborough County's 2006 Golden Helmet Award for Class 5A-6A players and endearing himself to teammates and coaches alike.
Longtime Wharton coach David Mitchell, father of three daughters, described Mr. Miller as the son he never had.
"The Leavitt thing, with this situation...that shouldn't even be brought up. The kid was too special for that," Mitchell said.
"He was a great kid, great person. ... He made it to the point where he made me want to coach him. I tell you right now, I'm glad I met Joel Miller."
Arguably his greatest high school game occurred late in the 2005 regular season.
With Wharton and Land O'Lakes tied at 28-all late in the fourth quarter, Mr. Miller spotted a vulnerability in the Gators' coverage and implored Mitchell to attempt a fake punt. He caught a 30-yard pass on the fake, and later scored a 10-yard touchdown on the drive.
Wharton won, 35-34, clinching the program's first district title.
"Everyone to this day thinks I made that call," Mitchell said. "I didn't make that call, Joel Miller did."