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Leavitt files suit against USF

Former football coach Jim Leavitt filed a lawsuit against the University and its athletics foundation Monday, citing a breach of contract and the refusal to comply with Florida public records laws.

Leavitt, fired with cause on Jan. 8, filed the suit claiming that his termination was illegal, “based on hearsay allegations,” and not as fair and thorough as the University claims it was, said Leavitt’s attorney Wil Florin.

“They signed a contract, they shook hands on it, and under those promises, he is entitled to an excess of $7 million in severance payments fired (without) cause,” Florin said Monday.

Florin said Leavitt, who received about $66,000 through direct deposit after he was fired, is seeking some of the seven-year, $9.5 million remaining on his contract, as well as legal fees and costs. USF now has the option to issue a written response to the suit.

Leavitt also claims he should have received more than the $66,000 he was given when he was fired. His contract says “coach will be paid one-twelfth of his adjusted base rate of pay …” Leavitt was scheduled to make $800,000 in 2010.

But his overall adjusted base pay rate for the remaining length of his contract was $4.5 million, and Leavitt argues that he should have been paid one-twelfth of that number – about $375,000 – according to his lawsuit.

The University fired Leavitt after a near month-long internal investigation concluded that he grabbed walk-on Joel Miller by the throat and slapped him twice in the face during halftime of a game against Louisville on Nov. 21.

Leavitt, who is out of town this week with family, has repeatedly denied the allegations. He said Monday that he didn’t want to speak specifically on the legal aspect, but he feels for the students at the University.

Leavitt said he’s traveling right now and doing work for Under Armour, which is also a sponsor of USF’s football program, and he’s eager to get back into coaching immediately.

“The group that I love more than anybody else is the students at South Florida,” he said via telephone. “They’ve been absolutely incredible at games, and … I love the students there.”

Since his firing, USF has hired Skip Holtz as a replacement, and the Bulls start spring practices this week.

USF spokesman Michael Hoad issued this response Monday morning: “The University stands by its decision and by the report that started it. That report has been public since the beginning, so there really isn’t a lot for USF to add to the issue. It remains sad that a terrific legacy ended that way.”

But Florin claims USF buried evidence in its investigation and “materially misrepresented statements” given by witnesses inside the locker room, including two law enforcement officers – one that gave a sworn statement in support of the former coach. Investigators interviewed 29 people in the report.

The lawsuit also says USF shouldn’t have deemed comments invalid by Mike Durakovic, a parent of a player, strength coach Ron McKeefery and safety Jerrell Young who all witnessed the incident and supported Leavitt. When Leavitt was fired, USF athletic director Doug Woolard said in a letter that there were no credible witnesses that could corroborate with the coach’s story, which was that he never slapped Miller.

The lawsuit claims that USF breached Leavitt’s contract by not giving him 10-days notice or a pre-termination meeting. And it fights the accusations that Leavitt “retaliated” against then-USF senior Colby Erskin by cleaning out his locker, which the coach denies.

Florin said Leavitt has repeatedly requested public records verbally and in writing, and they haven’t been provided. According to the lawsuit, these are some of the requests:

– Handwritten witness statements during the investigation.

– The recordings and transcripts of the interviews, e-mails and other communication relating to Leavitt’s firing.

– The minutes and transcripts from the Board of Trustees and USF officials discussing Leavitt’s firing.

– Correspondence between Woolard and potential candidates the University looked at to hire for the head coaching position.

“What we’re asking for is the court to make (USF) comply with Florida public records laws,” Florin said. “Either they’ve destroyed those documents because they didn’t want to be confronted with them, or they’re refusing to produce them after continuous requests the week following the termination because they know it’s favorable to coach Leavitt.”

Miller hired Tampa attorney Barry Cohen, and at a press conference in January, they threatened to sue Leavitt if he did not publicly apologize. But Leavitt never apologized. However, Miller, who is still on the team, has since said the family will not file any suit against the coach.