32 days to USC football: O.J. Simpson was inevitably great as a running back

RoT Countdown / Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images
RoT Countdown / Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images /

When O.J. Simpson picked up USC football’s No. 32 jersey there was an inevitability to his greatness. That wasn’t the case for Jim Sears before him.

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USC football is 32 days away. So close, yet so far.

To keep track of the countdown to kickoff, we at Reign of Troy are taking a closer look at each and every Trojan jersey number.

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On this Tuesday, it’s one of the retired greats: No. 32.

Who wore it best?

Like Marcus Allen’s No. 33, the No. 32 jersey at USC is synonymous with one man: O.J. Simpson.

Fran Tarkenton, the college and pro football Hall of Famer, put into words exactly what Simpson was and would become as a football player.

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“In recent times there have been only three truly great breakaway runners in professional football—Jim Brown, Gale Sayers and Leroy Kelly. There soon will be a fourth—O.J. Simpson,” Tarkenton said in 1968.

To Simpson he attributed a combination of Brown’s size and strength, Kelly’s shiftiness and Sayers’ speed concluding “he even may be the greatest of all time.”

Simpson drew such praise because his stellar running talent was obvious to all who saw him. He was pegged as the next great running back coming out of high school, but he didn’t have the grades to go to USC, so he went the junior college route. He tore up that level before making his transfer to the Trojans ahead of the 1967 season.

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The inevitability of his greatness paid off quickly. He was an unanimous All-American while leading the NCAA in rushing with 1,543 yards. That wasn’t enough to win him the Heisman Trophy, though he was a serious candidate just a couple hundred points behind UCLA’s Gary Beban. It was enough to secure a national championship for USC. And in any case, he got the better of Beban by ripping off an iconic 64-yard cutback touchdown run to beat the Bruins that season en route to title glory.

The next year Simpson left no doubt on the Heisman front. He outpaced Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 points, then the largest margin of victory in the history of the award. He’d made it easy for voters by upping the ante on his debut campaign with 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns, once again leading the NCAA.

It’s only unfortunate for Jim Sears that Simpson accomplished so much in the jersey, otherwise he would warrant more of a mention. But that was par for the course with the tailback-safety-return man who made USC’s 1952 squad click.

Standing 5-foot-9, 166 pounds, Sears didn’t fit the mold of a football player, even in the era when athletes were generally smaller than today’s standards. Yet he was essential to everything USC did on their way to a Rose Bowl victory. He carried the ball as a tailback, defended passes in the secondary and returned punts with devastating effectiveness.

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It was that last skill that earned him national accolades, picking up consensus All-American honors and finishing seventh in Heisman voting in 1952.

“The little fellow has shifty footwork and he has an amazing ability to follow interference,” Hal Wood wrote for the United Press in 1952. “When he runs into trouble, he seems able to shift into high gear and get away from his pursuers.”

Sears’ returning set up many a USC touchdown and he scored three touchdowns on his own, which remains a record for USC in a single season.

Who wears it now?

The No. 32 is retired on account of Simpson’s Heisman win.

Stats to know: 32

  • In addition to his role as a runner, defender and returner, the aforementioned Sears finished his career with 32 punts for 1,077 yards.
  • Guard Elmer Willhoite was USC’s 32nd All-American of all-time in 1952.
  • All-American wide receiver Robert Woods had 32 career receiving touchdowns.
  • All-American running back Ronald Jones II had 32 career receptions.
  • Clay Helton has 32 wins to his name as USC’s head coach with 17 losses.
  • Kicker Michael Brown has attempted 32 career PATs and has yet to miss.
  • In 1979, Paul McDonald found Kevin Williams for an eight-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds remaining against LSU, winning 17-12.
  • Don Shafer hit a 32-yard field goal with no time remaining to best Baylor, 17-14, in 1986.
  • USC beat Michigan 32-18 in the 2007 Rose Bowl.
  • In 2018, 32 former USC players, or Projans, were on opening day rosters in the NFL. That was the seventh-most of any school.

Next. 33 Days to Kickoff