TAMPA — USF football coach Jim Leavitt grabbed sophomore walk-on Joel Miller by the shoulder pads but never struck him, a player who witnessed the incident said he told school investigators.
Sophomore safety Jerrell Young said he was in the locker room during halftime of the Nov. 21 home game against Louisville.
"I speak for most of the team (except) a couple of bitter players: We want Coach Leavitt and that's what we're sticking by," Young said Thursday. "I don't think he did anything to cost him his job. I've been playing since Little League and grabbing shoulder pads, that's petty stuff. Call my mama, and she'll tell a coach to grab you like that. He didn't grab the throat or slap. It was nothing in that context."
USF is investigating allegations that Leavitt grabbed Miller by the throat and struck him twice in the face.
Asked why more players haven't spoken out in support of Leavitt, Young said the players were specifically told by athletic director Doug Woolard not to speak publicly about the incident.
"Woolard told us not to talk publicly … but I won't and I can't let my coach be scrutinized over something he didn't do," Young said. "It wouldn't be right. I take it upon me to say something because it's not true."
Young, who had posted statements in support of Leavitt on his Twitter.com page last month, said if Leavitt is fired as USF's coach, he would likely stop playing football for the Bulls, and said other top players have told him the same thing.
"I've talked to a bunch of players, and if Coach Leavitt leaves, there's a (good) chance I'm leaving, and there's a lot of players, as a matter of fact a lot of stars on the team saying they'd leave, too," the former Gibbs High standout said. "There's a lot of recruits, like my little brother, (Bradenton quarterback) Brion Carnes. I would not let him come here if another coach came in here. I came here for him, and a lot of other players too."
The story was first reported last month on AOL sports site Fanhouse.com, which quoted Miller's father and his coach at Wharton High. They said Miller told them that Leavitt had hit him. Leavitt has denied the allegations, and Miller, after the first story appeared on Dec. 14, has said the coach did not strike him. Since the initial story, Miller and his father have said the account was exaggerated.
Here is Young's description of what took place at halftime, describing Leavitt's interaction with Miller and cornerback Jerome Murphy:
"I was sitting across from Joel and down from Murph. What happened is Joel made a couple mistakes on special teams, he had a block in the back. Jerome Murphy got beat on a couple of passes. They both had their heads down, just out of the game. They weren't in the game, you could tell by their body language and their demeanor. Coach Leavitt, he tried to get both of them, telling them we were going to need them, telling Murphy 'You're a senior, you've got to step it up, we're going to need you this half,' telling him and Joel.
"Murph reacted to that, like 'Okay, Okay,' but Joel was kind of out of it. Coach got him by the shoulder pads, saying 'Joel, we need you.' It wasn't nothing, no choke or no slap or nothing like that. He grabbed him like a motivational talk. I would have seen it if it was a slap. I was right across. I talked to (investigators) and this is what I told them. That's the truth. There wasn't nothing like what Colby Erskin said."
Erskin, a senior receiver who was injured and not in the locker room during the Nov. 21 game, told Fanhouse and WDAE-AM 620 on Wednesday that Miller had told him an account of things that matched Fanhouse's initial report.
Times writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.