Jim Leavitt back in college game, while player he struck is struggling
In 2010, South Florida fired Jim Leavitt for striking Joel Miller. Yet in 2015, Miller is paying a far bigger price for the incident.
Joel Miller says he is having trouble finding work these days. In that sense, the 26-year-old former University of South Florida walk-on is no different than scores of his peers.
Life has yet to be mastered. Except that in Miller's case, it has been three years since he graduated with a degree in communications. Since then, he has unwillingly pursued a master's in how life can suck.
Miller doesn't consider himself a whistleblower, but sometimes that's the way it is perceived. Jobs at a bank and in pharmaceutical sales dried up, he says, when prospective employers checked his background.
"Go back and type my name into Google," Miller said. "You'll find 157 articles about me ... It follows me everywhere. It's a ghost behind me."
More than five years after he was a central figure in the firing of USF coach Jim Leavitt, Miller still feels like a victim. A different kind of victim. His situation emerged with a new national twist last week when Leavitt was hired back in college for the first time since USF as Colorado's defensive coordinator.
The same Jim Leavitt who was fired with cause in January 2010 for what the school not only concluded was striking Miller but also for interfering with USF's investigation.
The same Jim Leavitt who was humiliated and whose reputation was thrashed after three decades becoming one of the game's top defensive minds.
The same Jim Leavitt who -- some thought -- would never coach at the college level again.
"I think it's terrible," said Joel's father Paul when he heard of Leavitt's hiring. "He doesn't belong with any kids."
The same Leavitt who is now back in college because he's one the brightest defensive minds of a generation. A progeny of Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Leavitt started USF's program out of a trailer. In 2007, the Bulls reached No. 2 in the polls. In 13 years in Tampa, Leavitt enhanced the rep of a city, the program and himself.
Leavitt has not been contacted by Colorado to ask him to comment.
In a football sense, Leavitt is nothing but a winner. In a football culture sense, it seems that losing leaves a bigger stain on a coach's career than a slapping a kid in front of multiple witnesses.
Even if you don't believe the 58-year-old Leavitt grabbed Miller by the throat and struck him twice at halftime of a key game against Louisville in November 2009, you have to agree in any other walk of life, the mere insinuation of such an act could ruin a career.
Aside from one year out of the profession in 2010, Leavitt never stopped working. Meanwhile, Miller is wondering what he'll do with the rest of his life. In his hometown of Tampa, Miller says he is sometimes judged for being that guy.
"People still think I'm the reason USF isn't doing well," Miller said.
"I've been in fights. People hear my name and they want to fight. I've had beer thrown at me. I've had it all, trust me ...
"The only reason I'm telling you this now is if I go on [job] interviews [it happens] … I'm kind of sick of it."
Always with the same refrain Miller has memorized: "I'm sorry, because of your background we're going to go in a different direction."
There are academic awards remaining at USF that have gone unclaimed by Miller. He never again attended a Bulls football banquet. During one economics class, Miller said, his name came up during a class discussion.
"I was sitting in the back. I was saying, 'Damn, why don't these kids just effing shut up. They said, 'He probably just wants money. They said, 'Eff him.'
"I had a hat and hood on. I finally took it off and said, 'I'm that kid by the way. I don't want anything.'"
If this was Tuscaloosa or Austin, maybe the fanaticism could be expected, but Tampa?
Lately, Miller has started a clothing company. Things are moving slowly.
"I lost my way," he said. "I get torn apart for it. I'm not whining [but] when people come up to me and say, 'My boss is mad at me,' or 'My boyfriend is mad at me," I say, 'Do you want to switch places?'"
Multiple witnesses corroborated a media account of Miller's accusation that Leavitt grabbed and struck him. Leavitt never admitted as much, was fired, sued the school and has spent the past four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
If Leavitt's career arc was altered -- he did go to the playoffs three times in four years, including a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh -- Miller's life has never been the same. His perception is that he is blamed to this day by some for getting Leavitt fired.
"Facebook messages, everything. I've had some hard years," Miller said.
Paul Miller is outraged, promising he will call Colorado to voice his protest of Leavitt's hiring.
"To me that's an injustice," he said. "Why would you put someone like that [in power] who lied about an investigation, hitting a child?"
Obviously, Colorado had no problem with Leavitt. On a football level, CU desperately needs defensive help. Coach Mike MacIntyre's first two defenses have finished second-worst in the Pac-12 and in the bottom 20 nationally.
On a moral level, CU says it vetted Leavitt, though athletic director Rick George said he did not feel compelled to contact the Miller family.
"We've done our due diligence," George said, "and feel very confident it was an isolated incident."
In the profession, it is troubling trend that doesn't seem to abate. Leavitt's situation arose at a similar time when Mark Mangino resigned under pressure at Kansas and Mike Leach was fired at Texas Tech for alleged mistreatment of players.
Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after video surfaced of him mistreating players.
Mangino and Leach have returned to coaching at BCS schools. Why shouldn't Leavitt be given the same chance? A successful run at CU could at least recondition the USF narrative. A head coaching job could be next.
Depending on whom you talk to, maybe that's fair. Leavitt's past was largely ignored in the media last week when his college return was announced. Had five years been long enough? Is there a statute of limitations on such acts?
MacIntyre said he became close to Leavitt while coaching in the Bay Area at San Jose State (2010-12). The Spartans coach would drop by 49ers practices. The two coaches attended the same church. Before the hire, MacIntyre solicited the opinions of some 49ers, including star linebacker Patrick Willis.
"I just know that Jim is a heck of a guy," MacIntyre said. "Everything I've seen, everything I've talked to thinks the world of him. I can tell how much he cares about kids and players."
The story continues to be layered and nuanced. To paint Leavitt as a total ogre requires a leap. His coaching style can be aggressive in a profession that is fueled by Red Bull. On some level, you know what you're getting.
Shortly after he was fired, Leavitt filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against USF. The sides settled a year later with Leavitt getting $2.75 million. A portion of that settlement -- $750,000 -- was to acknowledge "Coach Leavitt's contributions to building USF's nationally respected football program."
In the settlement, neither side admitted wrongdoing.
Although CU didn't call the Millers, three other schools have over the past few years. One of them was USC, Joel and Paul said. They did not want to identify the other two. There has clearly been some demand for Leavitt.
"With his history, would you hire him?" Joel Miller asked. "I believe in second chances. People do wrong things. But he went over the top when he was at USF."
Further layering: Joel Miller volunteered that he was arrested for reckless driving six months ago. He says that incident came after he was scrutinized during job applications.
Initially, Miller told USF officials five years ago, "Coach Leavitt didn't touch me in any malicious way." Asked about that this week, Miller told CBSSports.com, "I was young and vulnerable. Leavitt told me he could take everything away if he had wanted to. He had the power to take everything away."
In the school's investigation, Leavitt is famously quoted as allegedly telling Miller, "Choose your words wisely. I'm the most powerful person in the building."
In the end, the cover-up was worse than the crime ... depending on whom you talk to.
Paul Miller: "Why put someone like that in a position [of power] again?"
Mike MacIntyre: "In getting to know Jim personally, I found he truly cared about kids, and cared about people."
Joel Miller: "I've been lost."
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