Make us your home page
Instagram

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Qualities that helped football coach Jim Leavitt succeed with USF Bulls also led to his downfall

TAMPA

“Choose your words carefully," the coach is alleged to have said. "Choose your words carefully because I am the most powerful man in the building." At one time, that supposed threat might have rung true. His salary was larger than the university president's, and his celebrity was far greater. University of South Florida football coach Jim Leavitt was the reigning prince in a storybook of his own making. The only problem is most storybooks are built upon flimsy framework, and this one was no exception. So it happened that on a cold and gray January morning, the most powerful man in the building was pointedly asked to leave. And in the end, Jim Leavitt was brought down by a reporter he openly mocked. By a walk-on player he allegedly slapped. Mostly, he was brought down by his own hubris and distorted reality. Not surprisingly, Leavitt denies this. Denies he ever struck special-teams player Joel Miller. Denies he called himself the most power­ful man in the building when talking to Miller later. Denies the conclusions of a 33-page incident review commissioned by the university. "What's important to me is clearing my name," Leavitt said on the phone Friday afternoon. "I grew up here. This is my home. And my reputation is very important to me. The key is for the truth to get out there. I just want the truth to be heard."

A few weeks ago when a story on AOL sports site Fanhouse.com instigated an investigation, I wrote that absolute truth would be difficult to pin down. And I believe that still today.

If you read the panel's report, there is no consensus on what happened during halftime of the home game against Louisville.

A couple of players say Leavitt absolutely grabbed Miller by the throat and slapped him twice. One player says Leavitt absolutely did not. And more than a dozen other players say they saw some variation in between or were not in position to see anything.

Miller's story seemed to change depending on who was listening. The report concludes the 21-year-old sophomore was conflicted about his role in potentially bringing down a coaching staff, but surmises he was telling the truth when he told teammates and others that he was assaulted.

Perhaps most damning of all for Leavitt is that no one saw the incident the way he did. And that, ultimately, is what led to his downfall.

Leavitt's version is like some Leave it to Beaver fantasy of a concerned coach on his knees wondering why this nondescript player looks so forlorn. Even his most vocal supporters must have rolled their eyes at that characterization. The man teeters on the edge of control in the best of times, so it's hard to picture him as some benevolent confessor just moments before he head butts another player.

Leavitt's inability to look at himself critically, or honestly, damaged his credibility in the eyes of the investigators. They seemed to find too many inconsistencies and not enough culpability in Leavitt's story.

That led the review panel to put its faith in the more sinister version of events. And it led university president Judy Genshaft to terminate Leavitt when she saw no concession or contrition in his tone or words.

In retrospect, his defiance should have been the easiest part of the story to foretell. He had risen near the top of his profession based on his ability to bully and bluster, so humility was going to be a difficult path to follow.

It's sad because, in a way, Leavitt was the perfect coach to take on the building of a team. He was everything USF needed. Ambitious, demanding and unapologetic. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the remarkable growth of the program.

Yet those same qualities also made him an unattractive employee in the long run. He was too brusque, too impatient and too insensitive. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, so there were few willing to defend him when he needed it most.

At this point, Leavitt's best chance for vindication might be through legal channels. It's hard to imagine him regaining his job at USF, but he could recoup some of his salary and he might attempt to clear his name for future job opportunities.

When asked Friday, Leavitt declined to say whether he would be taking USF to court. The university, however, is clearly preparing for that possibility, which is one of the reasons Genshaft and athletic director Doug Woolard declined to answer questions Friday.

"They have to be careful what they say," USF vice president Michael Hoad said. "Therefore a prepared statement is the easier way to go."

Leavitt also was careful in a brief interview. He insisted the review's findings were false, but he did not suggest anyone was lying.

"I have nothing bad to say about anyone there," Leavitt said. "It's a great university. Everything there was positive for me. Doug and Judy Genshaft, in the past, had always treated me fairly. I'm not going to talk badly about anyone.

"The whole thing is just a mistake."

Could Leavitt, 53, have saved his job if he had been more forthright? If he had admitted inappropriate contact with a student-athlete and apologized? I get the impression that he might have, but we'll never know for certain. Just as no one outside of that locker room can swear with any certainty about what happened inside there on the day of Nov. 21.

And so, when you talk about it, choose your words carefully.

For this was once the most powerful man in the building.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Qualities that helped football coach Jim Leavitt succeed with USF Bulls also led to his downfall 01/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 11:00pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze resigns over "inappropriate conduct"

    College

    OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze was at Jackson Country Club on Wednesday night, giving his yearly rah-rah speech about the Rebels' overcoming adversity and getting ready for the college football season.

    If Hugh Freeze hadn’t resigned, Ole Miss says it would have fired him for violating his contract’s moral turpitude clause.
  2. Fennelly: With playoff chase in high gear, it's time for Rays to make a move

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG

    Thursday was an off-day for the Rays, who are coming off a solid western swing. I assume there was no rest for the tag-team Rays baseball brain trust of Matt Silverman, Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, whose job it is to improve this team in advance of the trade deadline. They've done a good job …

    Evan Longoria is glad to see the Rangers coming to town: He’s batting .296 against them with 15 homers and 56 RBIs in 69 career games.
  3. Rays vs. Rangers, 7:10 p.m. Friday, Tropicana Field

    The Heater

    Tonight: vs. Rangers

    7:10, Tropicana Field

    TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 620-AM, 680-AM (Spanish)

    PORT CHARLOTTE, FL - FEBRUARY 18:  Alex Cobb #53 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays photo day on February 18, 2017 at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Floida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
  4. Good news for Rays on Steven Souza Jr. as MRI shows 'no damage' to hip

    Blogs

    The Rays got good news today on RF Steven Souza Jr., as an MRI showed "no damage" to his left hip.

    Steven Souza Jr. #20 of the Tampa Bay Rays holds his leg after hurting himself trying to steal second base in the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on July 19, 2017 in Oakland, California.
  5. Bucs raise prices for single tickets to marquee games

    Blogs

    The Bucs will have single-game tickets for 2017 home games on sale July 28, with a new wrinkle: the best games will cost more for fans.

    Bucs fans cheer Jameis Winston after a victory in their final home game of the 2016 season. Individual tickets for the Bucs' three most coveted home games (against the Patriots, Bears and Giants) will cost more in 2017.