As O.J. Simpson makes yet another foray into the public domain, the scene is increasingly surreal. Invariably, he's walking with an entourage through an airport or lobby, wearing a visor, golf shirt and a wide smirk. Then he opens his mouth and things really get creepy.

This time he stands accused of storming a hotel room in Las Vegas with several other men and staging an armed robbery.

Simpson said he was merely trying to recover memorabilia that belonged to him.

"I thought what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas," said Simpson when the story hit the news.

Clever. Almost as clever as his performance in "Naked Gun."

Whatever the outcome of the latest incident, it's obvious Simpson is a public relations nightmare. That makes it hard not to feel sorry for his alma mater, the University of Southern California, which put him on the football map. Tangled in another morass of legal woes, he's now an embarrassment to the program.

Meanwhile, here in Salt Lake, University of Utah football fans can be grateful O.J. is someone else's problem.

After all, he could have been theirs.

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It's hard to say where O.J.'s career would have gone had he played college football at Utah, but he nearly did. Whether he would have won the Heisman, as he did in 1968 at USC, is doubtful. In the pre-ESPN days it wasn't easy to be seen when you played for Utah. (Come to think of it, it's still hard to find Utah on TV, but that's another story.) Still, that doesn't mean he wouldn't have gone on to NFL stardom.

Because his grades weren't good, Simpson began at San Francisco City College, where he played in 1965 and 1966, earning junior college All-America status. After that he made a recruiting visit to Salt Lake City and was convinced. Then-Utah coach Mike Giddings, a former USC assistant who had previously known Simpson, persuaded the California native that playing in Salt Lake would be smart. According to Ned Alger, a former assistant to Giddings, Simpson verbally agreed to transfer.

But then the unthinkable — or rather inevitable — happened. USC stepped in and offered Simpson a scholarship.

He was gone like a breakaway run.

"He would have been a big dog in a little pen up here," said Alger. "Down there he was big dog in a big pen."

Alger says there were just too many enticements in L.A. to keep the Juice in Salt Lake, and thus he galloped into history as a Trojan.

"We had a shot at him," said Alger matter-of-factly. "But once USC located him, the lights were out."

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The rest, of course, is tabloid history. Simpson went on to the NFL Hall of Fame, then became even more famous as a broadcaster, pitchman, actor and murder suspect. He was acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her friend in criminal court but found liable in the civil trial.

After that came a dozen years of notoriety. Simpson has become a pariah, the sort of guy few would want to hand the ball off to, much less have watching their blind side. He drew even more derision when he tried to publish a book detailing how he would murder his ex-wife if he were to actually do it.

There's that clever O.J. sense of humor again.

It's ironic, in a way. In 1968 Simpson got what he deserved after rushing for 1,769 yards and 22 touchdowns — the Heisman. It was the widest margin of victory in the award's history. Now many are hoping he gets what he deserves again — 35 years in the slammer.

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So Utah and O.J. went their separate ways long ago and, at least as far as Alger is concerned, that's fine. Maybe USC did go on to win the national title in 1967 and the Utes went on to 4-7 and 3-7 seasons. But the U. can say with a straight face that it has no real ties to the man who seems to think he can get away with anything.

Whether history would have changed if Simpson had come to Utah is debatable. But it's almost certain he would have changed Utah's football's profile.

As for the Juice's profile, that became a lot higher than even USC bargained for.

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