USC remains silent on OJ Simpson's death, underscoring complicated connections to football star

The University of Southern California has made no public acknowledgment of Simpson's death.

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A copy of O.J. Simpson's Heisman Trophy still sits in Heritage Hall on the campus of the University of Southern California, at least when it isn't being displayed elsewhere along with the rest of the school's large collection.

Simpson's jersey is still retired by USC in recognition of his two remarkable seasons as the Trojans' tailback, and his No. 32 is prominently displayed at every home football game on the banners that drape the peristyle steps of the venerable Coliseum.

But when Simpson's death from prostate cancer at 76 in Las Vegas was announced Thursday, his school made no public acknowledgment of it.

The silence — atypical for the Trojans, who have lauded their passing football greats with flowery public statements — is an obvious statement in itself about the complicated relationship with one of the most accomplished athletes in USC history.

Lincoln Riley was born 15 years after Simpson won his Heisman, but the current USC coach was left to provide what might turn out to be the university's only prominent words on Simpson's death during his normal spring football media availability.

“Certainly as a head coach here, you obviously know about his history and his legacy, the kind of player that he was here,” Riley said. “We definitely, certainly recognize that, and obviously extend our sympathies to his family on their loss.”

That disconnect largely has been the standard for institutions in Los Angeles and across the nation for the past three decades since Simpson was charged with killing his former wife and her friend in 1994.

The worlds of sports and entertainment largely disassociated from one of the most famous athletes-turned-actors of his generation, and most of his longtime friends and admirers had dropped Simpson by the time he was acquitted in 1995.

So it's difficult to remember that until the public course of Simpson's life changed forever in his late 40s, he was widely perceived as an embodiment of the American dream.

He grew up in the Potrero Hill housing projects of San Francisco, overcoming brushes with gangs, a few arrests and juvenile corrections before finding a way out through football. Simpson then played two seasons at City College of San Francisco, becoming a two-way junior college star.

Major programs offered scholarships to Simpson for the 1967 season, and he chose USC, the school he admired growing up. He arrived on campus with high expectations under coach John McKay, but he exceeded every reasonable prognostication by becoming one of the most dominant running backs in college football history.

Just how important was Simpson to the Trojans while they went 19-2-1 and made two Rose Bowl appearances during his two seasons? He carried the ball a jaw-dropping 674 times in just 22 games for 3,423 yards and 36 touchdowns.

EUGENE, OR - NOVEMBER 2: Running back O.J. Simpson #32 of the USC Trojans runs the ball against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium on November 2, 1968 in Eugene, Oregon. USC defeated Oregon 20-13. Photo by Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Simpson remained popular in Los Angeles when he went on to his NFL career in Buffalo and San Francisco, and he returned to Hollywood to continue his acting career after his retirement from football. He was an avid golfer and a member of the famed Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, where he played several times a week in 1994 — including the morning before Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were murdered.

Simpson was found liable for the deaths in a civil trial in 1997, and subsequent attempts to rehabilitate his image foundered. Simpson's charmed Hollywood life was over.

The former football star and USC remained publicly estranged for the rest of his life — and an attempt to change that backfired as well.

Simpson visited USC's practice in Fort Lauderdale in late 2002 while the Trojans were preparing to face Iowa in the Orange Bowl. The 1968 Heisman winner, who hadn't been around the team since the murders, chatted with reigning Heisman winner Carson Palmer and others.

Pete Carroll called Simpson “a legend" after welcoming him, but the coach and the school received widespread public condemnation for re-associating with Simpson. His connection with USC was largely finished from there, particularly after his subsequent nine-year incarceration for armed robbery.

Simpson’s death didn’t change how most of his former teammates and friends felt, for better and worse. Many of Simpson’s former USC teammates have also died, and others didn’t want to speak publicly about him when asked Thursday.

Three years ago, Simpson told The Athletic that he didn't enjoy being in Los Angeles because "I might be sitting next to whoever did it. I really don’t know who did this.”

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