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Family of player at center of USF Bulls football case retains high-profile Tampa attorney Barry Cohen

The family of Joel Miller, the walk-on running back at the center of the locker-room incident that led to the firing of USF football coach Jim Leavitt, has retained the services of Barry Cohen, a high-profile Tampa attorney who has handled several multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits and settlements.

Miller's father, Paul, said Sunday that the family is being represented by Cohen. The attorney said he did not know whether any civil action would be taken .

"I'm in the process of evaluating the facts," Cohen said. "I'm going to go where the evidence takes me. I'm doing my own investigation, but I know this boy has been truly victimized when none of this was his fault."

A university investigation found that Leavitt grabbed Miller by the throat and slapped him twice in the face during halftime of USF's home game against Louisville on Nov. 21. Leavitt and Miller denied that happened, publicly and in meetings with investigators, but other witness accounts led the university to rule that Leavitt did hit the player, lied about it and interfered with the investigation, all considered "serious violations" of the school's conduct policies.

USF fired Leavitt last week.

Cohen said Miller is a "courageous kid, a principled kid" and that much of the attention brought on him after the allegation was made public could have been avoided if Leavitt had told the truth.

"(Miller) didn't try to hurt the coach. He went the other way and tried to protect him," Cohen said. "He didn't go crying; he stood up for his coach. He feels very badly about this, but he was innocently involved. The coach should have stepped up to the plate and said the right thing. It put the kid in a very unfair position, where a lot of people have unfairly blamed the kid for this."

Leavitt did not return a call seeking comment. University spokesman Michael Hoad agreed that Miller has done nothing wrong and said it is good that the family has sought Cohen's guidance.

This isn't the first time Cohen has been hired by the family of a USF football player. In 2007, he was retained by the family of the late Keeley Dorsey, a freshman running back who died at a team conditioning workout in January of that year. An investigation by the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death was due to natural causes, and no legal action was taken by Cohen against USF.

More USF: Former Plant High linebacker Donte Spires, who last played for the Bulls in 2007, will start classes today and play as a senior in the fall. He left the team in August because of financial and academic reasons.

Around the nation

Fulmer ready: Former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said that after taking a year off, he is interested in finding another head coaching job.

"I'm certainly interested in coaching again," Fulmer, 59, told the Orlando Sentinel at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Orlando.

When asked whether he had inquired about the USF vacancy, Fulmer said, "Not directly. I have not."

He did not rule out seeking the job. "The school seems to have a lot going for it. … My wife is from St. Pete. We have lots of friends in the area. I've recruited in Florida for a long time."

Going pro: Georgia junior linebacker Rennie Curran will enter the NFL draft.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Big gun

Some of the more high-profile cases involving Tampa attorney Barry Cohen:

1970s: Defended Henry Hill, a New York mobster, in the beating of a Tampa lounge owner over gambling debts. Hill's story inspired the book Wiseguy and movie Goodfellas.

1994: Represented Sheriff Everett Rice and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office when they were threatened with a lawsuit by former U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle for damages stemming from a false arrest charge.

1997: Represented Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, suspected in the disappearance of their 5-month-old daughter from their Valrico home. Cohen eventually sued the federal government for malicious prosecution on behalf of the Aisenbergs and won a settlement.

2002: Hired by Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez to represent him in an FBI inquiry into his handling of a legal dispute over the estate of former Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse.

2004: Represented dance teacher Jennifer Porter, who was charged in a hit-and-run accident in North Tampa that killed two children and injured two others.

2007: Hired to represent Nick Bollea, son of pro wrestler Hulk Hogan, after Bollea crashed a car that critically injured a friend. Cohen withdrew from the case a few weeks later.

Family of player at center of USF Bulls football case retains high-profile Tampa attorney Barry Cohen 01/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 12:18am]
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