A defiant Jim Leavitt professed his love for his players and vowed to fight for his job as USF football coach at a news conference Monday in Palm Harbor.
"The allegations are misreported," Leavitt said. "I've said that from Day 1. … I want to coach this football team. …
"I'm going to fight for it because I know what's right."
Leavitt, fired Friday after a university investigation found that he grabbed a walk-on running back by the throat and slapped him twice in the face during halftime of a game in November, spoke from the offices of Florin Roebig, his newly retained attorneys. He contends he was wrongfully fired and seeks reinstatement.
These are Leavitt's first public statements since brief comments Friday morning, when he said he was "very disappointed" and would "respond in time." The attorneys' statement says that the firing was "contrary to the terms of his contract and in violation of his constitutional rights."
Attorney Thomas D. Roebig Jr. said at the news conference that Leavitt was denied his contractual right to a pretermination meeting to confront the allegations against him. Roebig said USF cited "emergency circumstances" that the attorneys believe were recruiting.
Roebig faulted the university for scheduling a post-termination meeting for Monday, giving Leavitt only one business day to prepare. USF later postponed the meeting until Wednesday.
Investigators, including an outside labor lawyer, talked to 20 players and nine others in attendance during halftime of USF's Nov. 21 game against Louisville, and despite conflicting statements on whether Leavitt grabbed the player by the throat or shoulder pads, their findings were that Leavitt committed "serious violations" of the school's conduct policies, including lying to investigators and interfering with the investigation. The USF report found no corroboration for Leavitt's version of events.
Leavitt's attorneys see the report as Leavitt and the alleged victim, walk-on Joel Miller, denying the incident was out of line.
"The majority of the evidence says the event is not as it's portrayed," Roebig said.
USF stands by its investigation.
"The University of South Florida stands by its review and the findings from that review," vice president of communications Michael Hoad said in a statement. "We believe the reviewers, both internal and external, were fair, thorough and professional in finding that the head coach crossed a line in terms of his conduct. As the president said on Friday, this is a sad turn of events. Jim Leavitt worked hard for 14 years at USF, and it is disappointing."
Leavitt's statement says Miller and his father, Paul, "have both repeatedly denied publicly and during the University's investigation that coach Leavitt did anything improper." The Miller family has retained the services of Tampa attorney Barry Cohen, who has not determined if any civil action will be taken against USF, Leavitt or anyone else.
Cohen told the Times on Sunday that Leavitt's words and actions were unfair to Miller.
"The coach should have stepped up to the plate and said the right thing," Cohen said. "It put the kid in a very unfair position, where a lot of people have unfairly blamed the kid for this."
USF determined Leavitt's firing to be "with cause," which means under the terms of his seven-year, $12.6 million contract, he would only be paid one month's base pay, which is $66,667. Had he been fired "without cause," he would be entitled to 75 percent of his remaining contract, which is $7.1 million.
USF has begun a nationwide search for Leavitt's replacement, with running backs coach Carl Franks elevated to interim coach and all nine assistants kept on staff until a new coach is named.
DUNGY VISITS: At athletic director Doug Woolard's request, former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy spoke to USF's football team, which met Monday for the first time since Leavitt's firing.
"He told them that when he was fired, the Bucs won the Super Bowl the next year," Franks said.
Franks said the meeting was important to get the players on the same page, encouraging them to stay focused and committed in the classroom while a new coach is hired.
"We just want to make sure they have a little direction, that they know all the assistant coaches are here and working," he said.
MOFFITT INJURED: Former USF linebacker Ben Moffitt, a first-team All-Big East selection in 2007, was badly injured in a car accident on I-75 on Monday morning. Moffitt was listed in serious condition at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa; his injuries weren't believed to be life-threatening. He has been out of football for the past year.