“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 email@example.com.