Miller demands apology from Leavitt

Updated: January 14, 2010, 9:05 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

TAMPA, Fla. -- The player who says fired South Florida football coach Jim Leavitt grabbed him by the throat and slapped him in the face wants a public apology.

The attorney for Joel Miller said Thursday that the sophomore walk-on is not interested in filing a lawsuit, but could if Leavitt doesn't "man up" and admit wrongdoing in the locker room incident that cost the coach his job.

Leavitt was fired last week after a university investigation concluded he grabbed Miller during halftime of a game, slapped the player twice in the face and then lied about it. The coach strongly denies the accusation and wants his job back.

"We're ready for a fight," said Barry Cohen, Miller's attorney. "We don't want a fight. We don't want a lawsuit. We don't want to pursue any criminal cases. We just want you to say, 'I made a mistake.' "

Speaking publicly for the first time since Leavitt's dismissal, Miller spoke briefly during a news conference but did not answer questions.

Miller, whose allegation was first reported by AOL FanHouse, said he attempted to cover up what happened because he feared it would damage his career, create problems for Leavitt and potentially become a distraction for the team.

"He grabbed me by the neck and he hit me twice," said Miller, flanked by Cohen and sitting in front of his parents.

When the matter first came to light in December, Miller told ESPN's Joe Schad that the allegations were not true.

"I don't think anything should happen to him," Miller said then. "Me and Coach Leavitt are fine. People can say different things but he only grabbed my shoulder pads to motivate me, because he's a passionate guy. He never apologized because he had nothing to apologize for."

Miller said Thursday that "everyone knows the truth inside that locker room. All the players know the truth. All the coaches know the truth. ... I covered it up, and then it got to be where it was too big for me to handle any more. All I want is for the truth to come out, and I want coach Leavitt to just admit that he did grab me and did hit me twice."

Miller has known Leavitt since the player was 12 years old and a regular participant in the coach's football camps.

"Playing football, growing up, you're taught that your head football coach is like a father figure. ... When he came over to me that day and grabbed me and hit me, I was more stunned than anything. I didn't really know what to do. I wasn't going to lash out at my head football coach. You just don't do that as a player."

Later, Miller told AOL FanHouse that the day after the player met with investigators he met Leavitt in the parking lot of a church because the coach wanted to know what he was questioned about.

"He told me to bring everything that happened and give him everything that me and the investigators talked about and to write it all down on a piece of paper," Miller told FanHouse, adding that Leavitt initially wanted him to send the information to his wife's e-mail account.

"It was a weird feeling," he added of the meeting.

Miller said trying to cover up what happened has been tough on him and his parents.

"I haven't been spleeping. It's affected me," the player told FanHouse. "No matter where I go, people are always saying stuff to me ... A lot of it bad."

Leavitt launched South Florida's program from scratch in the mid-1990s and compiled a 95-37 record in 13 seasons.

The fired coach told investigators he has never struck a player and that he was trying to lift the spirits of a player who was "down" when he grabbed Miller's shoulder pads during halftime of a game against Louisville on Nov. 21.

The university investigation concluded the coach's account was not credible because it was not supported by statements obtained from others, who either witnessed the incident or were told of it by Miller.

"There's a difference in being tough with your players and being humiliating," Cohen said.

"Being pushed and being motivated is one thing. He's been motivated and pushed all of his life. But being grabbed by the throat and being slapped in the face is not being a football coach. It's being a bully. ... That's not part of the game."

Leavitt's attorneys contend the firing was unwarranted.

The coach just finished the second season of a seven-year, $12.6 million contract extension that called for a base salary of $800,000 in 2010.

The school says he was fired with cause, meaning he's entitled to one month's base pay -- $66,667.

If fired without cause, the university would owe Leavitt about $7 million, which is 75 percent of the remainder of the contract.

Cohen said Miller retaining legal counsel is about the coach doing the right thing, not a lawsuit or money.

Looking into a row of television cameras, the attorney made a direct to Leavitt.

"You tell these kids to man up. ... Manning up is about stepping up to the plate now," Cohen said. "I know you've got $7 million or $8 million out there. But you know what, you're not going to win that case. There's too much evidence against you."

Joe Schad is a college football reporter for ESPN. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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