MORGANTOWN — There are reasons Tom Bradley was so important for so long at Penn State and why athletic directors tried to get him to leave Happy Valley and take over his own program. There are reasons he sent so many players to the NFL and won so many awards for coaching.
And, of course, there are reasons West Virginia tried like it did to hire Bradley this past offseason. He is a resource on and off the field, a recruiter in western Pennsylvania, a developer on the defensive line and an encyclopedia of experiences.
Nobody in the Puskar Center knows Alabama coach Nick Saban quite like Bradley. Dana Holgorsen and the eight other assistants have never prepared for a Saban team. Bradley has done it seven times before.
“And I hated it,” he said with a laugh that lets you know just what awaits West Virginia on Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The 3:30 p.m. game against the nation’s No. 2-ranked team will be televised by ABC.
Penn State was 3-2 against Saban’s teams at Michigan State and 0-2 against his teams at Alabama. Bradley saw Saban in his second Division I season and at his second Division I job. He played him before and after coaching in the Southeastern Conference. He experienced him before and after Saban was a defensive coordinator and a head coach in the NFL.
“I have seen the full spectrum, I just haven’t done really well against it,” Bradley said.
Saban jumped into head coaching in 1990 with the Toledo Rockets after two seasons on the Houston Oilers staff. He was gone after one year return to the NFL as Cleveland’s defensive coordinator. After four years there, he headed to Michigan State and then to LSU after five seasons with the Spartans. Following five seasons with the Tigers, he leaped from the SEC to run the Miami Dolphins for two years and has been at Alabama since 2007.
Trace that path: He began as a defensive assistant with Jerry Glanville and his wide open offense. He took over a Mid-American Conference team and won nine games and never allowed more than 28 points before returning to the NFL. He earned a shot between the tackles in the Big Ten, where life is different than it is in the SEC, but he won a national title at LSU.
He took his skill to the NFL, where he ended his first season with a six-game winning streak and followed that with his only losing season as head coach. He won a second national title in his third season at Alabama and then won his third and fourth titles in his fifth and sixth seasons there.
His time with the Oilers was the last time a team he was associated with was renowned for offense. He has defied the tactic others have used to define their success.
“He may be a little different because I think — I know — he builds a team around a strong defense and a strong running game,” Bradley said. “I don’t want it to sound like he doesn’t have great skill. He does. He has great skill. But the one philosophy Nick has is he wants to be able to run the ball when you know he’s going to run the ball.”
There is nothing harder in college football, but there’s nothing more demoralizing for a defense that surrenders. It’s as rare as it is remarkable in an era when teams and entire conferences scheme to spread the field and throw the ball.
Yet it works and it speaks to Saban’s trademark.
“Two things you can count on when you play a team coached by Nick: They’re going to be fundamentally sound and they’re going to be physically tough,” Bradley said. “In order to beat them, you have to beat them.”
Bradley learned that pretty quickly when Saban took over at Michigan State, which had won 3, 5, 6 and 5 games the four years before he arrived. Penn State was No. 14 near the end of the 1995 season and the Spartans had started 6-3-1 in Saban’s first season. The Nittany Lions held on at home, 24-20. Penn State was No. 7 for the next year’s game and Michigan State was 6-4 before losing 32-29. The Spartans were again 6-4 for the 1997 game and Penn State was ranked No. 4. Saban won 49-14 and the teams split the next two seasons.
“It happened fast,” Bradley said. “He makes teams physically tough right away, but that’s one thing he prides himself in. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Coach Saban when he hasn’t had a strong running game. He takes them up a notch, always has.”
Saban’s Alabama teams don’t commit penalties or turnovers in bunches. They don’t miss many assignments or squander many opportunities to score points or squash opponents. They trust their coaching and the coaches trust their players.
“They believe in the way they do things,” Bradley said. “If you look back over the course of time, when Nick plays offense, it’s almost like a punt is OK. Just don’t turn it over. Do not turn that ball over.”
The time that has transpired in Saban’s career and the turns he’s taken along the way would seem to suggest he’s changed his ways here and there. When Bradley prepared for Saban’s Alabama teams for games the Crimson Tide would win in 2010 (24-3) and 2011 (27-11), he realized he was preparing for the same approach. He sees the same things now.
“It’s a track record with Nick,” Bradley said. “He believes this is the way they’re going to win football games and he doesn’t waver very often. He’ll throw in some things to keep you a little bit off-balance, but he’s not going to make a living throwing the ball all over the park and spreading you out. He’s very comfortable playing that game within the box.
“But you have to be prepared for everything. He has everything in his arsenal. That’s the thing you have to understand. He has the wide receivers, he has the deep threat, he has the stuff to get on top of you. He has the personnel to do all that, but he’s most comfortable playing defense and running the ball. Passing for him is when it’s necessary. It’s a need factor to keep the defense honest.”