USF football coach Jim Leavitt slapped walk-on Joel Miller twice in the face and grabbed him by the throat, a senior wide receiver told investigators, recounting what Miller said to him days after the Nov. 21 incident.
Colby Erskin, the first player to speak publicly about what he told investigators, was not in the locker room but said in interviews Wednesday with AOL sports site Fanhouse.com and WDAE-AM 620 that Miller told him what happened, seeking advice about what to do.
Leavitt has denied hitting Miller. Fanhouse.com reported on Dec. 14 that the coach slapped the sophomore running back twice at halftime of the Louisville game and that Miller told his father, Paul, and his high school coach, David Mitchell of Wharton, about it. Since then, Miller has said the coach did not hit him, and his father, quoted in the Fanhouse story, said the story exaggerated the incident and that his quotes were taken out of context.
The school is not commenting during its investigation — conducted by Sandy Lovins, associate vice president for human resources, and private labor counsel Tom Gonzalez — and has given no indication when it will be completed.
Erskin said his comments to investigators have caused a falling out with Miller but that other players who were in the locker room have backed the original account that Leavitt hit Miller. Erskin said at least five players told him they informed Gonzalez that the coach struck Miller.
Other players have publicly supported Leavitt.
"(Joel Miller) doesn't talk to me now. He's mad at me," Erskin said. "… He said something before about it was my fault. I said I don't know how it's my fault because I told you to tell the truth."
Erskin said Leavitt has been physical with players before.
"He hits his head against the wall every day when we watch a highlight film before a game and at halftime he head butts people," said Erskin, who played at Seminole High. "He's grabbed players before, not to that level. … He's done something similar to me, not to that degree, obviously."
Erskin has been away from the team since his third anterior cruciate ligament injury in October ended his final season and was the only player to choose not to attend the International Bowl last Saturday.
On WDAE he described a contentious relationship with Leavitt, who he said blames him for leaking the original story to Fanhouse. Erskin denied doing so. He said that after the bowl trip, Leavitt cleared out Erskin's locker and threw everything, including personal items belonging to the player, in a trash bin.
"(Leavitt) wanted to find somebody to blame. He was looking, and I was an easy target because I wasn't around," Erskin said.
Erskin said he was told Leavitt contacted his coach at Seminole High, Sam Roper, to say Erskin was the one who leaked the story. Roper told the St. Petersburg Times that he has not spoken to Leavitt about the matter.
Leavitt said neither he nor the equipment manager threw Erskin's possessions away.
"We always keep it because even the seniors work out in the spring," Leavitt told the Times.
Leavitt said Erskin had quit the team four times as a walk-on and had been allowed back by the coach against the advice of his assistants. Leavitt said his rift with Erskin, who later went on scholarship, comes from the coach not wanting to let Erskin play after his second ACL injury. Leavitt said he regrets allowing him back on the field despite the risk of another injury.
"I should have been stronger with him," Leavitt said. "I felt bad for him. Some kids, the more you do for them, the more trouble you're in with them."
Times staff writers Greg Auman, Frank Pastor and Bob Putnam contributed to this report. Auman can be reached at email@example.com.