TAMPA — Senior linebacker Kion Wilson had played his last game for USF and coach Jim Leavitt, but just the same, Friday's news of Leavitt's firing stopped him in his tracks.
"It hurt me. It hit me hard," said Wilson, who was working out in Miami in preparation for the NFL draft when he learned the news via text messages from his Bulls teammates. "It's just really unfortunate."
Wilson said he knew Leavitt's job was in jeopardy when USF began an investigation last month into allegations he grabbed walk-on running back Joel Miller by the throat and slapped him twice in the face during halftime of a Nov. 21 home game against Louisville. But Wilson said after seeing that Leavitt coached the team in its 27-3 win against Northern Illinois last week in the International Bowl, he thought Leavitt had survived the inquiry.
"I honestly thought the situation had passed," Wilson said. "We finished the bowl game on such a high note, and there was a great chemistry between the coaches and players."
Sophomore safety Jerrell Young, who had spoken out in Leavitt's defense a day earlier, found out about Leavitt being fired on ESPN and was disappointed that players weren't notified by the university in one form or another. Many players are off campus because spring classes don't begin until Monday.
"It's a shame, how it happened, why it happened," Young said. "A lot of players feel that way, but it's out of our control. It's sad that it came to this point. I know it's part of the business, but to think about the coaches and their families, it's disheartening."
Junior linebacker Sabbath Joseph said the news was "devastating" to him and that players have talked about transferring out of the program, but after talking to the team's chaplain, David Lane, he was reminded that he needs to be a leader as a senior in the fall, regardless of who the head coach is.
"I have to step up, to help keep us together as a family," Joseph said. "We may have another coach next year, but all of us are kids that Coach Leavitt brought in and gave a scholarship to, and we'll remember that."
Even players who have known Miller since before his days at USF showed support for Leavitt. Walk-on linebacker Rony Delisca, a teammate of Miller's at Wharton High, sent the following message out on his Twitter.com page Friday morning: "Coach Leavitt made South Florida."
Former USF linebacker Kawika Mitchell, now with the Buffalo Bills, wrote about Leavitt on his Twitter page as well.
"It's goin to b very different w/o Jimbo around USF," he wrote. "Couldn't believe the news bout Jim Leavitt. If he did it he's wrong and should b fired. If not? I'm amazed, shocked and a lil sad."
That sadness extended to USF's coaches as well, like offensive coordinator Mike Canales, who was part of Leavitt's original staff and came back for a second stint two years ago.
"It broke me down. When it hit, it dropped me," Canales said. "I'm so close to Coach (Leavitt), 14 years together building this thing. I hurt for him; I hurt for our coaches and our family. It's not just nine coaches; it's everybody else in that building. It's very difficult."