TAMPA — USF football coach Jim Leavitt strongly denied accusations brought against him in a report by Fanhouse.com saying he grabbed a football player by the throat and struck him in the face.
"I'm appalled at it," Leavitt said Monday afternoon. "It's absolutely not true. It's so wrong. It's so far out there. I'm very disappointed something like this would be written."
According to the report, Leavitt, upset over a special teams mistake by sophomore walk-on Joel Miller during the first half against Louisville on Nov. 21, grabbed Miller by the throat then struck him twice in the face during halftime.
The report was based on comments from Miller's father, Miller's high school coach and five unnamed members of the USF program. Reached by the St. Petersburg Times on Monday, Paul Miller said the incident was greatly exaggerated and that Leavitt grabbed his son by the shoulder pads and did not strike him.
"I stand behind the university and Coach Leavitt 100 percent," Paul Miller said. "I truly believe there was no malicious intent to hit anyone. He grabbed his shoulder pad … but it was like a motivational thing. After talking with Joel, he was satisfied there was not a slap, not at all."
The incident took place during the same halftime in which Leavitt headbutted a helmeted player, leaving a bloody gash across the bridge of Leavitt's nose and a red mark above his left eye. The headbutt is something Leavitt has done several times as a motivational tactic.
Asked if he had any physical contact with Miller during halftime, Leavitt said, "I shook a lot of different guys, but not in a forceful way. In my heart, I know I did nothing wrong. Nothing like that. I care so much for him."
Paul Miller said his son has had a long relationship with Leavitt, attending USF football camps since he was 11 years old. After one semester at the Citadel, the Wharton graduate transferred to USF to become a preferred walk-on in 2008 and totaled seven special teams tackles as a redshirt freshman. He has four tackles this season.
The Fanhouse.com report quoted Paul Miller as saying "you do something like that, you put them in jail" and that Leavitt "crossed the line." He told the Times both quotes were taken out of context.
"He asked me what I did for a living, and I said, 'If you did that on the street, you'd go to jail,' " the former police officer said. "That doesn't mean I would say that about Coach Leavitt. That's not what was said. Joel said, 'Dad, we're fine. I know he didn't slap me. He was just trying to get me going.' "
Joel Miller calls his high school coach, David Mitchell, after most USF games to talk about his play. Mitchell said he talked with Miller after the Louisville game and he made no mention of the incident; Mitchell only heard of it Thursday when told by another high school coach who had heard about it.
"The best thing would be for (Miller) to tell you what went on, instead of me saying, 'This is what was told to me,' " said Mitchell, who was quoted in the Fanhouse report.
Joel Miller declined to comment when reached by the Times on Monday afternoon. USF's main communications department issued a statement Monday night that USF will look into the matter but will not comment further during that process.
"The University of South Florida is aware of the story and will review the matter promptly," said Michael Hoad, USF vice president for communications. "We're committed to ensuring due process for everyone involved. To ensure fairness, the university doesn't comment during a review."
Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf.