Jim Leavitt, as closely associated with his football program as any college coach in the country, is no longer the face of USF football after 13 seasons.
Leavitt was fired Friday after a three-week investigation concluded that he grabbed walk-on running back Joel Miller by the throat and slapped him twice in the face during halftime of USF's Nov. 21 game against Louisville.
USF president Judy Genshaft, in announcing the decision, said Leavitt "committed serious violations" of university policies, not only in the locker-room incident but in his conduct afterward in regard to the investigation.
The news echoed to current and future players, to assistant coaches now in limbo, and to USF's biggest boosters, who saw the end of the only football coach the Bulls have known.
"It's a sad day for USF football," said Columbia Restaurant president and CEO Richard Gonzmart, a prominent Bulls supporter, "but we'll come out of this a better program. … I will miss Coach Leavitt because I like Coach Leavitt, but I support their decision. I don't think he realizes he did it, but he did it, and it left (athletic director) Doug Woolard no alternative."
Woolard read a short statement after Genshaft spoke, saying, "I truly wish there had been another outcome," but did not take questions from the media, on advice of USF attorneys.
USF's 33-page investigation, which included interviews of 20 players and nine others who were in the locker room, found more credence in the account of a few players who witnessed the incident over Leavitt's vehement denials. A letter to Leavitt said that "your description … was consistently uncorroborated by credible witnesses, and in fact contradicted."
Other players had defended their coach in the investigation. Despite weeks of uncertainty, players said they were surprised to hear Friday's news, in disbelief even.
"I feel like he lost his job for no reason," said junior receiver Dontavia Bogan, who was in the locker room during the incident but did not see what happened. "It's ridiculous. … I didn't expect this to happen, to wake up and see this on ESPN. Everybody's shocked about it. … I can't believe this. His job is gone over something like this? He started this program, and look what he brought it to."
Former car dealer Frank Morsani, a major supporter of the university with his wife, Carol, said Leavitt's dismissal was a tragedy but one that probably had to happen.
"I'm very fond of Jim Leavitt," Morsani said. "I think he did a wonderful job. It's very, very unfortunate. I deeply regret it for him."
Leavitt, 53, who grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from Dixie Hollins High, was named USF's head coach in December 1995, 21 months before the Bulls' first game. He led the program's remarkable rise, to Division I-A in 2001, to Conference USA in 2003 and to its spot in the Big East in 2005.
USF has played in bowl games in each of the past five years, with three wins, including last week's 27-3 victory against Northern Illinois in the International Bowl in Toronto.
Under Leavitt's guidance, USF was the only school in a major conference to open each of the past three seasons with a 5-0 record, but the Bulls have suffered midseason slumps in all three seasons after rising in the national polls. USF has finished no better than 4-3 in any of its five years in the Big East, and the Bulls finished 3-4 this season, in a three-way tie for fourth place. Leavitt's record in Big East play is 17-18.
Leavitt had never been a head coach when he came to USF, but now, the program is in position to land a top-level candidate with proven success against BCS competition, with former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden and former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville mentioned prominently as potential candidates. In fertile recruiting territory, with a reasonable path to the Big East's automatic Bowl Championship Series berth, it's a job that will draw interest from across the country.
USF named running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Carl Franks, a former head coach at Duke, as the team's interim coach.
Leavitt denied the accusations to the end, unwilling to give Genshaft and Woolard a morsel of contrition when they met Friday morning.
Genshaft left a voice mail Friday with USF professor Laurence Branch, president of the Faculty Senate and a university trustee, disappointed by the coach's unwavering position.
"We said to him, 'Coach, here's this report. What do you have to say? Is there anything you can help us with on this? Do you apologize? … What can we do?' He said, 'I didn't do it. I didn't do it. I didn't do it. I didn't do it,' " Genshaft said on the message. "And so we said, 'There's a violation of conduct and this is very, very serious.' And he said, 'Well, I can tell you I didn't do it.' 'But the evidence is in this report.' … I wish he would have said, 'I'm sorry. I was in a fit of passion. I got overemotional' or whatever, but he didn't. And he's sticking to his guns. … This has been very, very, very difficult."
Had Leavitt been fired simply for losing too many games, USF would have owed him 75 percent of what remained on his seven-year contract, which would be about $7.1 million. But the university is specifically classifying his termination as "with cause," meaning that contractually, it owes him one month's base salary, $66,667, about 1 percent of what he would have gotten without cause.
Leavitt's brief comment Friday morning was to say that he was "very disappointed" and that he would "respond in time," leaving open the possibility of a wrongful termination suit against USF. Miller's father, Paul, who declined to comment Friday night, said he has met with attorneys in the past two days but would not say who any lawsuit would be brought against.
The next chapter in Bulls football history begins now, as Woolard begins a national search for the coach who will take over where Leavitt abruptly left off.
Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas and Richard Danielson and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.