Leavitt fired as South Florida coach

TAMPA, Fla. -- South Florida fired football coach Jim Leavitt after a school investigation concluded he grabbed one of his players by the throat, slapped him in the face and then lied about it.

A letter hand-delivered to the coach and released along with a report on the three-week probe said the university's findings were based on "independently corroborated statements of persons found to be in the best position to observe your conduct."

"Coach Leavitt committed a serious violation of our standards of conduct regarding treatment of students," university president Judy Genshaft said Friday, adding a national search for a replacement will begin immediately.

Reached by telephone, the only coach in the program's 13-year history told The Associated Press he was "disappointed" and the allegation was "absolutely false."

Leavitt 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 the player's shoulder pads during halftime of a game against Louisville on Nov. 21.

But the letter athletic director Doug Woolard presented to Leavitt during a meeting with Genshaft informed the coach "your description of your conduct toward the student athlete in question was consistently uncorroborated by credible witnesses."

The school also concluded Leavitt interfered with the investigation by having "direct contact with material witnesses ... at a time you knew or should have known was critical to the review process."

Leavitt, who was 95-57, just completed the second season of a seven-year, $12.6 million contract.

"I truly wish there had been another outcome to this situation," Woolard said during a news conference Friday.

Before Leavitt's firing was announced, a USF staff member told ESPN's Joe Schad that the entire coaching staff would be fired. However, the university said coaches have been told it would be up to Leavitt's successor to decide whether they will be retained.

Genshaft and Woolard launched the investigation last month after an AOL FanHouse report said Leavitt had grabbed sophomore Joel Miller and hit him in the face twice during halftime of the Louisville game.

Miller was penalized for an illegal block in the first half, and he also was on the field when Louisville returned a punt for a touchdown.

"I'm very disappointed. The allegations as reported are absolutely false," Leavitt said Friday. "I'm going to respond in time."

Miller told Schad that he would have no comment about Leavitt's firing but that he planned to release a statement in the coming days. In an interview last month, Miller said he plans to remain with South Florida's program.

"It's been real hard especially on my family," Miller said at the time. "But my plan is to stay and play here."

Citing Miller's father, a high school coach and five USF players who were not identified, FanHouse initially reported Leavitt struck Miller because he was upset about a mistake Miller made on special teams.

Miller's father later backtracked, telling reporters Leavitt did not strike his son but rather grabbed him by the shoulder pads while trying to motivate the sophomore walk-on.

Neither Genshaft nor Woolard took questions, and specifics about Leavitt's dismissal were not discussed during the news conference.

Investigators talked to several players, who were not identified by name and who either witnessed the alleged incident or were told of it by a player referred to in the report as "Student A."

The report said during an initial interview with investigators that "Student A" tried to play down the incident, saying the coach grabbed his shoulder pads and "didn't touch me in any malicious way."

The investigation concluded differently.

In his letter to Leavitt, Woolard said the athlete's statements after the probe began "are unpersuasive because they were contradicted by the same student athlete in his conversations with credible witnesses made close in time to when that conduct occurred."

Leavitt was hired in December 1995 and launched USF's program from scratch, operating out of trailers on campus in the early years while guiding the Bulls' swift progression from Division I-AA to BCS conference member.

USF joined the Big East in 2005 and has played in a bowl game every year since joining the league. The Bulls were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in 2007 before a midseason conference slide dropped them out of the Top 25.

Similar collapses in conference play followed 5-0 starts each of the past two years. The Bulls finished 8-5 this season.

Florida defensive line coach Dan McCarney, former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville -- who has strong ties in the state from his tenure on Miami's coaching staff -- and Michigan offensive coordinator Calvin Magee are expected to be candidates to replace Leavitt, a source told ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel.

Information from The Associated Press, ESPN.com senior writer Ivan Maisel and ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad was used in this report.