Football Writers Association of America 2010 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: LOOSE DEADLINE
Brett McMurphy, FanHouse

TAMPA, Fla. - University of South Florida fired coach Jim Leavitt Friday for striking a player and repeatedly lying to investigators, FanHouse has learned.

USF fired the only coach the Bulls have had in the program's 13-year history following an investigation initiated after a FanHouse report that stated Leavitt grabbed sophomore Joel Miller by the throat and hit the walk-on twice in the face Nov. 21 at halftime of USF's home game with Louisville.

Brett McMurphy, Fan House
Age:48
College: Oklahoma State
Background: McMurphy joined AOL FanHouse in October 2009 as a senior writer and this fall became FanHouse's national college football writer. Previously he was with the Tampa Tribune for 22 years, the last 17 reporting on college athletics. He also worked at the Odessa (Texas) American from 1985-87. A native of Oklahoma City, McMurphy has won two FWAA awards, including first place for loose deadline in 2008, an APSE award and three FWAA honorable mentions. He also landed a spot on John Walters' coveted Twitter 200 list (where McMurphy's Tweets can be found @BrettmcmurphY). He and his wife, Susan, have a 6-year old daughter, Chesney, who can be heard enthusiastically cheering on the Crimson Tide with her mom each Saturday in the fall.

The investigation found that Leavitt "inappropriately grabbed the throat and slapped the face of a student athlete," and that his denials were "consistently uncorroborated by credible witnesses ... [and] contradicted by a number of credible witnesses."

The 33-page investigative report, obtained first by FanHouse, shows Leavitt regularly lied during his interview with the investigator. It shows that Leavitt told Miller that he should "choose his words wisely" because Leavitt was "the most powerful man in the building," an exchange that was reported in FanHouse's initial story.

One player, identified as "Student Athlete C" told investigators that Leavitt "flat out lied" in his denial of the incident and "every word in the FanHouse article is accurate."

The investigative report, conducted by Thomas Gonzalez, found several instances where Leavitt lied to the investigator.

Among them that Leavitt "denied grabbing or slapping [Miller]" during the game.

The findings also indicate "Leavitt was told not to discuss the review with any Student Athlete" ... "nevertheless, he admits having spoken to [Miller] immediately after [Miller's] first interview."

The university announced his firing at a press conference Friday. Leavitt, who was fired for cause, will receive one month's base salary as severance, or roughly $66,667. Leavitt was in the second year of a seven-year, $12.6 million contract and was due to make $800,000 in base salary this season and receive a total compensation of $1.6 million.

Running backs coach and former Duke coach Carl Franks was named interim coach.

Despite denials from Leavitt and strength coach Ron McKeefery, the reviewers found that the incident took place as originally reported by FanHouse.

Investigators interviewed 20 student athletes and nine non student-athletes, including USF staff members and David Mitchell, Miller's coach at Tampa's Wharton High School.

According to the investigative report, Miller initially denied having been grabbed by the throat or struck, but provided the names of five other student athletes to investigators. Two of the five athletes had seen the event and described it as, "involving Coach Leavitt grabbing [Miller] by the throat with one hand and 'slapping' or 'striking' [Miller's] face with his other hand."

"Student Athlete H" said he remembered that [Miller] looked "shocked" and definitely was "shook up" after it.

Another student athlete warned of the coach, "When Leavitt's doing his thing, I stay away."

In the report, Leavitt claimed he didn't know Miller had a "bad first half," nor did he remember Miller's penalty, an illegal block on a punt return. Leavitt said he knelt so he could make eye contact with Miller, but the player did not respond. Leavitt says he shook [Miller's] knees, and asked "what's wrong [Miller], what's wrong?"

The coach then claimed he grabbed [Miller's] shoulder pads and told him he would do better. He denied grabbing his neck and said there was "no way" that his hand could have slipped or that he touched Miller's face.

However, several student athletes described the event much differently.

"Student Athlete B" said Miller was looking up at the coach as Leavitt came quickly toward him. Leavitt then grabbed Miller by his throat and struck Miller's head twice with an open hand.

"Student Athlete B" told investigators that he was certain he had witnessed a crime. He also said he was unable to sleep or eat because of what he had witnessed and categorized it as "an assault." He added he felt betrayed and said he believed Leavitt had violated the program's values and standards.

Miller reported that when he spoke with Leavitt, the coach advised that Miller should "choose his words wisely, because he, Leavitt, was the most powerful person in the building," according to the report.

Miller's position coach, Franks, told investigators that when he spoke to Miller's parents after the Louisville game, they told him they were "concerned" about what had taken place in the locker room.

"Student Athlete C" said Miller was bothered by the incident, asking "Did you see that s---? Did you see what he did to me?"

Mitchell, Miller's former high school coach, told investigators that he spoke to Miller over the phone and Miller described the incident "exactly as it was reported in FanHouse."

Miller's initial reluctance to verify the initial story was due in part to the player's concern for the fate of the team's assistant coaches, according to the report, as well as his own concerns of not being allowed to play. Miller repeated that he "just wanted to play football."

The report characterized Miller as not "a person who would be untruthful. ... He very much seems like the sort of man who would not want the incident to affect the coaching staff or others."

But the incident's impact continued to grow. "Student Athlete N," who was injured and did not travel to Louisville, learned of the incident following the game and said that the entire team was aware of it.

FanHouse first reported details of the incident Dec. 14. Five witnesses, USF players and staff members, said that Leavitt was upset by a mistake Miller made on special teams during the first half against Louisville, leading the coach to strike Miller.

When reached for comment Dec. 14 by FanHouse, Leavitt would neither confirm nor deny the incident.

"Things that happen or don't happen usually are kept within the team -- whether they happen or don't happen," Leavitt said.

Wednesday, senior wide receiver Colby Erskin, who was not present in the locker room at the time, told Fan- House that Miller told him about the incident and asked for his advice on what he should do, a few days after the Nov. 21 incident.

Erskin also said Leavitt cleaned out his locker and threw his personal effects into a trash bin. Erskin said he believed that Leavitt suspected him of leaking the story to the media and was retaliating against Erskin.

After FanHouse's initial Dec. 14 report, Leavitt told local newspapers that he had never struck a player. Paul Miller, who conducted five interviews with FanHouse and said that "Leavitt crossed the line" by hitting his son, changed his story and told local newspapers Leavitt did not strike his son.

Mitchell, an ordained deacon and Miller's coach at Tampa's Wharton High School, said he stood by his original comments to FanHouse that Joel Miller told him he was grabbed by the neck and hit twice by Leavitt and FanHouse's report was "100 percent accurate" based on what Miller told him.

"I'm not taking back anything I said to you," Mitchell told FanHouse.

Leavitt was 95-47 overall at South Florida and 17-18 in the Big East.

He guided the Bulls to a 27-3 International Bowl victory over Northern Illinois in his final game. The search for a replacement will commence immediately, the school announced.

Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Well researched piece on Leavitt's firing. Answered all the questions. Excellent job obtaining the report and attempting to interview everyone involved.

Second place: Lindsay Schnell, The Oregonian
Third place: Jason King, Yahoo! Sports