The University of South Florida made the difficult but correct decision Friday to fire Jim Leavitt, the only head football coach the school has ever known. A university review concluded Leavitt choked and slapped a player, lied about it and interfered with the investigation. Such behavior cannot be tolerated, even from the coach who built the program from nothing to national prominence.
USF's methodical review and its firm response reinforced three important points: Student-athletes are students first, and the university has an obligation to ensure their health and welfare. The athletics programs will be held accountable. And the university's image goes hand-in-hand with fulfilling its educational mission.
Investigators appointed by the university interviewed 29 people about a confrontation at halftime during the Nov. 21 game between USF and the University of Louisville. Investigators said a frustrated Leavitt walked into the locker room, grabbed the throat of fullback Joel Miller and slapped him twice. Investigators said Leavitt's denials were inconsistent and unconvincing. And they said he interfered after the fact by having contact with witnesses to the investigation. The findings were given to USF president Judy Genshaft and athletic director Doug Woolard on Wednesday; the university fired Leavitt Friday morning.
There was no reason to celebrate. Genshaft, an unabashed football booster, said firing Leavitt was one of the toughest decisions she has made. But she was quick to reaffirm that Leavitt crossed the line. Her words and actions reflect the larger responsibility the university has to students, parents, alumni and the communities it serves.
Leavitt's success in building the football program is a big part of Genshaft's legacy as president. But the university demonstrated a seriousness from the start by hiring Tom Gonzalez, the noted Tampa labor attorney, to investigate what happened. Another university could have hunkered down over the holidays and hoped the bad publicity disappeared, then buried a months-long review to justify doing nothing. USF worked over a three-week period to document what happened and took immediate steps to replace Leavitt as head coach. While Leavitt said he would respond "in time," his public denials of any wrongdoing and his private meddling in the investigation suggest he has yet to grasp the seriousness of his mistakes.
Coaches hold enormous influence over the lives and development of their athletes. The Leavitt report reflects how many players in the course of this investigation struggled with competing emotions over loyalty, acceptance, ambition, and right and wrong. But they learned valuable lessons Friday about the importance of upholding standards and holding even football coaches accountable for their actions.