TAMPA — The story was denied from almost the moment it was told. It was denied by one of the principals, and it was denied by one of the sources. And certainty is hard to find when the truth becomes a moving target.
The basic premise is that there was an emotional incident in the South Florida locker room during halftime of last month's Louisville game. Fanhouse.com claims USF coach Jim Leavitt grabbed special teams player Joel Miller by the throat and struck him in the face with his hand. Miller's father says the story is exaggerated, and Leavitt says it is a blatant lie.
Personally, I have no idea what happened. And other than a handful of participants and observers, I'm not sure anyone will ever feel completely comfortable that they know the absolute, unspun truth.
There are some things about the denials that don't make sense. There are some inconsistencies. And there have been whispers around USF about the alleged incident for a couple of weeks.
The university said in a statement Monday evening that it was reviewing the matter, but, as it stands right now, my guess is Leavitt will be exonerated shortly. The evidence was sketchy in the beginning, and it grew even less steady as the day went on.
Yet, I'm not sure the circumstances that led to this situation should be summarily dismissed. Leavitt would do well to consider this a cautionary tale. Perhaps an impetus for quiet reflection.
You will never meet a more passionate, driven man than Jim Leavitt. His ambition, his skills, his desire almost single-handedly took the USF football program from a vague notion to a nationally ranked program in barely more than a decade.
It was his personality, as much as anything else, that took USF to Division I-A, to the Big East Conference and to a string of bowl games quicker than even the most wild-eyed dreamer could have imagined.
But those same traits that made Leavitt a successful college football coach have made him an unattractive person at times. He is terribly impatient. He can be overbearing and arrogant. And he has a tendency to act like a bully.
Does this mean he is guilty of anything inappropriate in the Miller situation?
No, that would be an unwise jump to an unreliable conclusion.
But ask yourself this:
Were you shocked when you first heard the Fanhouse report?
If you've ever seen Leavitt act like a madman on the sideline, it would not be a stretch to imagine him losing control in a locker room. On the very night of this accusation, Leavitt bloodied his face by headbutting a player who was wearing a helmet.
Maybe that's great motivation. Maybe it's a sign of admirable machismo. But it's also a little unhinged. Leavitt does not deny this, but he insists he would never do anything that might harm one of his players.
"The only damage I've ever done is to myself," Leavitt said. "Now there are times when you want to get the attention of your players. And I'm passionate and I'm emotional, and I'm not going to change. And, yeah, I can get pretty stern and strong with players.
"But people who have known me for years and years, know that I would never do anything like what was reported. Not by any means. And it breaks my heart that someone can write something like this, something completely unsubstantiated. The damage is already done. No matter what anybody else says or writes, it's out there forever. And that's what kills me."
The original story, which was written by a former USF beat writer at the Tampa Tribune who has had run-ins with Leavitt, did not clearly point out the exact nature of the alleged incident.
Paul Miller, the player's father, said Monday that the story was "blown out of proportion" and "was a bunch of bull----." He said Leavitt grabbed his son by the shoulder pads and his hand may have slipped and struck him in the neck. Twice.
"I don't think it was malicious intent," Paul Miller said.
But he did acknowledge that his son was troubled by whatever was said or done during halftime of that game. Joel talked to his father about it, and Paul Miller suggested that he take his concerns to Leavitt.
"There was communication between both of them, yes," Paul Miller said. "Joel talked to him first. They weren't on the same page. Coach Leavitt called him back and said, 'Hey, Joel, I need to talk to you.' "
Joel Miller was in a nearby car Monday as his father spoke outside the USF athletic facility, but he declined to comment.
Leavitt says their conversations about the episode centered on Miller's disappointment in his own play and the coach's attempts to bolster the player's confidence.
"I'm not a perfect guy. I do things wrong," Leavitt said. "But I would never do anything like that. People who know me know what kind of love and care I have for my players. They know something like this is inconceivable."