MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — On the outside, Tom Bradley looked lost. He was trying to find his way around the Puskar Center, his new football home at West Virginia University after 37 seasons at Penn State and then two years in the media.
He was wandering without direction until he’d stop to ask someone for some help.
Even that didn’t work.
“I was always going the wrong way,” Bradley said.
On the inside, though, the longtime assistant coach for the Nittany Lions and now the senior associate head coach with the Mountaineers was relieved. He knew he was being welcomed into a new football family.
“The players were playing games with me and sending me the wrong way,” he said. “Now I’m onto them and what they’re doing.”
Fake help was still help because this has not been easy for Bradley, and won’t pretend it didn’t challenge his emotions or test what he’d come to know in his college football life spent exclusively at Penn State.
He played defensive back and special teams from 1975-78 for Joe Paterno. He worked first as a graduate assistant before his first full season as an assistant coach with the special teams in 1980. Bradley would eventually coach running backs, receivers, defensive backs and, most famously, linebackers at Linebacker U. He was put in charge of recruiting and then the defense and he coached 18 All-Americans, 43 all-conference players and 51 professionals.
It all came to an end with Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse scandal that devoured the Penn State program in 2011. Paterno was fired after nine games and Bradley was the interim head coach the final three games of the regular season and then the bowl game. He resigned when the university hired Bill O’Brien as the new head coach.
It was difficult to accept for a man who not only identified with the program for so long, but who had become part of the identity of the program. Bradley dealt with it by knowing he had no other option.
“There were a lot of things obviously said over the years about being the next head coach,” said Bradley, who is WVU’s defensive line coach. “It didn’t work out. From there, you can’t worry about it. You’ve just got to work on trying to do whatever is in front of you the best you can. You can’t look back on it.”
Bradley spent the next two seasons watching, the first fall he hadn’t played or coached the college game since 1974. There was no college job for the man who won national awards for being a top assistant coach and defensive coordinator, who recruited the fertile Western Pennsylvania area, who had been considered for a variety of head coaching jobs through the years, reportedly including Temple and Pitt in 2011.
Bradley in plain clothes then was as odd a sight as Bradley in gold and blue today, but the implication was clear. He was Penn State, and given the scope and the details of the scandal that took down a football empire and saddled it with heavy sanctions, it was easier to stay away from Bradley than to bring him on and defend the decision.
Never mind his name never appeared in the Freeh Report, the thorough investigation of the scandal that ultimately agreed Paterno and others tried to hide Sandusky’s crimes from the university and from law enforcement.
“I think there could be perceptions out there, but it’s something you just have to deal with, however you want to call it — guilt by association or whatever,” Bradley said. “I’ve always said, ‘Let the legal system take course. Let those guys work it through.’”
Bradley dealt with it by starting anew. He launched a website and started his Twitter account and soon found himself back in the game, but in a new arena. He was first hired as an analyst for the Pittsburgh Steelers radio broadcasts and Clear Channel Radio. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin welcomed Bradley to practices and Bradley would slide into deep defensive dialogues with Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
“That,” Bradley said, “was a blessing.”
Bradley added to his calendar last year when he joined the CBS Sports Network as a game analyst.
“I got to go around to all the different colleges when I did the CBS thing and got a chance to watch other programs,” he said. “What’s funny is when you do television, coaches, they give you everything. They all want to sound smart. You go visit them normally and they don’t tell you anything. On television, they tell you everything. I was able to pick their brains. I’d never had an opportunity to do that and to get some different ideas.”
In many ways, it was what Bradley needed. He not only stayed close to the sport and kept familiar with the speed with which it changes, but his eyes and mind were opened to new ways to play the old game. He’d need that at his next stop, the one he figured would eventually arrive, and he’s made use of the experience at WVU. He’s becoming reacquainted with his old life and getting to know the way defensive coordinator Tony Gibson coaches defense.
“This is different,” Bradley said. “As I’ve told people, I’m not used to bringing a practice schedule in my pocket all the time. I never had to do that before. I kind of knew it. The playbook, the words are new, everything is new in that regard. I never had to worry about that because the playbook was my stuff. It was in my head. I didn’t have to really look at it ever. It was all there. Now it’s different. Different words mean different things. I think the hardest part is the associations with certain things I called one thing and we call it something else here. But I’ll get it figured out.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.