Guards at Kern Valley State Prison found Phillips, 40, unresponsive in his cell. He was taken to an outside hospital and pronounced dead about 1:30 a.m., the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.
He had been housed alone in a segregation cell since April 2015 after he was suspected of killing his cellmate. A Kern County judge had ruled Tuesday that there was enough evidence to try Phillips in the death of Damion Soward, 37.
Phillips was once one of the top U.S. college football players at Nebraska, but he went from Heisman Trophy candidate to pariah after he beat a former girlfriend hours after a spectacular performance in a September 1995 win at Michigan State.
Phillips pleaded no contest to third-degree misdemeanor assault and trespassing and was sentenced to one year of probation. Tom Osborne, Phillips’ former coach at Nebraska, arranged for Phillips to undergo in-patient therapy for anger management at a Kansas clinic and suspended him for six games, a punishment many national observers deemed too lenient.
Osborne defended his decision to reinstate Phillips, saying medical personnel agreed that Phillips needed the structure of football in his life.
His former coach said Wednesday that he was surprised by Phillips’ death.
“All of his correspondence with me, in spite of his circumstances, have been fairly upbeat,” Osborne said. “I’m surprised because I didn’t see that coming.”
He said it was sad because Phillips had many gifts, not just in athletics.
“He was an intelligent person and had some good qualities,” Osborne said. “He was very loyal to his friends, and yet he had some anger issues and couldn’t overcome the demons in his life.”
Judge Michael Dellostritto on Tuesday ordered Phillips to face trial on a charge of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait, Kern County court records show. The special circumstance could have led to the death penalty had he been convicted, but prosecutors said no decision on that had been made.
“Our condolences are extended to his family,” Deputy District Attorney Andi Bridges said after learning of Phillips’ death.
The cellmate he was accused of killing was the cousin of former University of Southern California and NFL wide receiver R. Jay Soward, who was well-known in Los Angeles during his career.
Jesse Whitten, Phillips’ attorney, did not immediately return telephone and email messages from The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Nebraska recruited Phillips out of a West Covina, California, group home, and he was a key member of the Cornhuskers’ national championship teams in 1994 and 1995. He ran for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a Fiesta Bowl win over Florida that clinched the national championship, then declared he would enter the 1996 NFL draft as an underclassman.
His former coach said he corresponded with Phillips every few months.
“Things weren’t going in a good direction for him. All I can say is I feel very bad, and I guess we feel like we did what we could for him,” Osborne said. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.”
Sports Writer Eric Olson contributed to this story from Omaha, Nebraska.