TAMPA — On the day his attorneys filed a lawsuit against the University of South Florida, former Bulls coach Jim Leavitt was across the state, taking in a beautiful day in Boca Raton while visiting his wife's parents there.
"I'm just enjoying my family, enjoying today," Leavitt said. "I haven't thought about much else."
Leavitt, 53, doesn't sound angry. "I love the university," he says, still drifting into "we" by old habit in referring to the Bulls, even though he concedes that "I'm not a part of the program anymore."
Still, for the first time, USF is Leavitt's opponent, with harsh language in a 53-page lawsuit filed Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court. In the suit, attorney Wil Florin argues that Leavitt's termination was illegal and that the investigation that led to his dismissal was "biased, flawed and legally unsupportable."
"The USF report is a rambling collection of hearsay/double hearsay statements and non-contextual quotes that, in essence, is a subjective, picked-over, blatantly biased summary by USF," he writes in the lawsuit.
It argues that USF "materially misrepresented statements" from witnesses and chose not to interview others known to be in the locker room at halftime of USF's Nov. 21 game against Louisville, when Leavitt allegedly grabbed walk-on Joel Miller by the throat and slapped him twice. Leavitt has denied those accusations from the start, and the lawsuit seeks to recover some part of the $9.5 million left on his seven-year contract, along with attorney's fees.
The lawsuit also takes issue with USF not releasing the entirety of its investigation as a public record, as the school has declined to do after requests from Leavitt's attorneys. "In refusing disclosure, USF is either hiding evidence favorable to coach Leavitt or has destroyed that evidence to avoid being confronted with it," Florin wrote in a release issued to the media.
Leavitt remained adamant he has done nothing wrong.
"I wouldn't have done anything different," he said Monday, though the team he coached for 14 years will open spring practice today without him, starting a new era under coach Skip Holtz. And USF officials remain just as confident that they made a correct move in firing the only football coach they'd had.
"We stand by our decision," USF spokesman Michael Hoad said. "The report speaks for itself.”
Leavitt's attorneys take exception to USF athletic director Doug Woolard's statement that no credible witnesses could be found to corroborate Leavitt's account of the incident, that the coach grabbed the player by the shoulder pads and shook him, but never grabbed his neck nor slapped him.
The lawsuit says Benny Perez, a Florida Highway Patrol officer, told investigators he was in the room and saw the incident, but said Leavitt did not choke or strike Miller; the summary of USF's investigation conveys his statements as a far weaker defense of Leavitt. The lawsuit also alleges that USF materially misrepresented the testimony of another Highway Patrol officer, Jack Hypes. Strength coach Ronnie McKeefery; a player's parent, Mike Durakovic; and safety Jerrell Young also gave statements in support of Leavitt's account of what happened, but weren't deemed credible, with no explanation, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that USF did not adequately investigate its accusation that Leavitt "retaliated" against former receiver Colby Erskin, who accused the coach of cleaning out his locker.
And from a legal standpoint, the lawsuit alleges that USF breached Leavitt's contract by not giving him 10 days' notice, a pretermination meeting or all the documents used as evidence in his dismissal.
Leavitt is hoping to repair his reputation along with any financial aspect to the lawsuit. The nature of his firing has kept him from landing a coaching job, even as an assistant.
"I want to coach, but I don't know where I'll be," Leavitt said. "Do I miss it? Yeah. But I have the ability to enjoy things. My head is held pretty high. It's a great university, with great people, and I'll always love the players there."