PSU Football: Is Tom Bradley the rightful heir to Paterno?

Tom Bradley has spent the past 30 years evolving into the man behind The Man -- an evolution that some say should one day make him The Man.


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley has been Penn State's stand-in coach the past month while an injured Joe Paterno watches from upstairs.

But will Bradley still be the man patrolling the sideline if the 81-year-old Paterno retires?

Former Nittany Lions' All-American linebacker LaVar Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowl performer who played seven years in the NFL with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, thinks that would be the right call.

"It's no secret, everybody knows that Joe Paterno will not be breathing when someone takes over for him," Arrington said. "When he is gone, which I hope is a long time from now because he is such a great coach, I think [Tom] is the rightful heir to that throne.

"If he's not rewarded for his loyalty and dedication, that would be a travesty. I think everyone involved knows that. It's not a matter of, `Is he qualified? It's who would be more qualified than him?' And the answer is no one."

Paterno, who has been hampered by a sore right leg and hip that will require surgery after the season, indicated this past week that he plans to return in 2009.

His contract, though, expires after this season, and president Graham Spanier said he and athletic director Tim Curley plan to discuss Paterno's future with him after Penn State's bowl game.

Penn State has no succession plan in place, so if Bradley is the Lions' coach-in-waiting, no one in the Spanier administration is saying.

Tom Bradley
  • Age: 52
  • Hometown: Johnstown
  • High school: Bishop McCort, Class of 1975.
  • College: Penn State, Class of 1979.
  • College career: Special teams player on 1978-79 teams that went a combined 22-2. ... Played in four bowl games.
  • Coaching career: Is in his 30th season as an assistant coach -- all at Penn State. ... Became defensive coordinator in 2000. ... Nittany Lions are 64-42 since he became defensive coordinator. ... Selected one of nation's top 10 recruiters by SI.com in 2005.

Bradley, 52, nicknamed "Scrap" for his hard-nose style of play, is in his 30th season as an assistant coach under Paterno. He has earned the respect of the players.

The undefeated Lions are 9-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country and Bradley's defense is among the best in the nation again. The Lions rank third in scoring defense, eighth in total defense and 13th in both pass defense and run defense.

"He is a great assistant and a great defensive coordinator," outside linebacker Navorro Bowman said. "He's always there when Joe's not able to [be]. Everybody respects him and basically looks at `Scrap' as a head coach.

"Having `Scrap' on the sideline is really just replacing Joe. There's no loss on the sideline."

Bradley arrived at Penn State as a safety and special teams player in 1975. He has never left Happy Valley, going from special teams captain to graduate assistant on Paterno's staff in 1979.

He has coached the special teams, outside linebackers, wide receivers, defensive ends, defensive backs and served as the program's recruiting coordinator.

Bradley has landed several prized linebacker recruits from Western Pennsylvania, including Arrington (North Hills), Paul Posluszny (Hopewell), Sean Lee (Upper St. Clair) and Brandon Short (McKeesport).

In 2000, Bradley took over as Penn State's defensive coordinator, replacing longtime boss Jerry Sandusky, who retired. Sandusky also was thought to be Paterno's successor, but the Hall of Fame coach outlasted him.

Bradley, who is single, has turned down numerous college and NFL coaching opportunities through the years to stay at Penn State. A few schools, Temple, Illinois and Rutgers, wanted him to interview for their head coaching vacancies.

"I like what I'm doing and I'm happy with what I'm doing, so why leave?" Bradley said. "Everybody says I have what it takes to be a head coach, but that's not going to define me as a coach."

Paterno prefers that his replacement come from his staff. Other in-house candidates could include linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, the one-time Maryland coach, and defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

"I think Tom and a couple other guys on that staff will make good head coaches," Paterno said earlier this year. "I think Tom would be a fine head coach. Tom is a hard worker. He's smart. He works at it. He's got a good personality. I think he's got the stuff to be a good head coach."

Bradley is one of three brothers to play for Paterno. His older brother, Jim, was a defensive back who lettered in 1973-74, and is currently the Steelers' team physician. Younger brother, Matt, a linebacker from 1979-81, died of heart failure five years ago.

Jim said he tried to convince Tom to become a corporate lawyer when he graduated from college, but to no avail.

"Tom's a very loyal guy," Jim said. "Joe is the guy who brought him to the party. He's not going to do anything to disrespect Joe. He has handled the situation very maturely.

"But who in their right mind wouldn't want to be the coach at Penn State? That's the pinnacle. When Joe is finished, I am sure they will have a national search for a replacement. I just hope my brother is one of the candidates considered.

"I'm hoping they do what they did last time, hire from within. That's what happened when Joe replaced Rip Engle [in 1966]."

With Bradley in the lead role, he has had to deal with officials and penalties and calling timeouts. He handled similar duties two years ago when Paterno was sidelined with a broken leg.

Bradley's defensesPenn State's NCAA rank in total defense since Tom Bradley was named defensive coordinator in 2000:
Season
Rank
Ypg.
W-L
2000
55
363.8
5-7
2001
98
443.6
5-6
2002
27
330.1
9-4
2003
49
362.4
3-9
2004
10
291.6
4-7
2005
12
304.7
11-1
2006
15
284.5
9-4
2007
11
308.2
9-4
2008
8
265.9
9-0
Source: ncaa.com

"Tom has been showing the world what he brings to the table," Arrington said. "He's maintained the continuity of the whole team while Joe has had to stay up in the coaches' booth because of his leg.

"It only makes sense that Tom be the one who takes over for him."

Bradley grew up in an athletic family in Johnstown. His late father, Sam, played basketball at Pitt. His sisters, Patty and Cassy, were track stars at Villanova. Bradley went to Bishop McCort, the same school that produced Penn State and Steelers great Jack Ham.

Bradley was a three-sport star who exhibited coaching qualities even then.

"He wasn't the most gifted kid, but he was always the most mentally prepared and he showed great leadership as a captain," said Bishop McCort athletic director Fran Zima, who was Bradley's football coach. "He had the respect of all of his teammates.

"He's carried that over to Penn State. I think he deserves a shot at the job when Joe goes, given his commitment to the Penn State program. I think it would be a very smooth transition."

Bradley wants to makes it clear: Paterno is still in charge. Bradley said he has thoroughly enjoyed playing and working for the winningest coach in Division I-A history.

"His legacy will be in the players who have played here for him and what they do with their lives," Bradley said. "He shows us all how to work hard and do things the right way.

"I have been the beneficiary of that as both a player and coach. I have been blessed to have been a part of this program."


Ron Musselman can be reached at rmusselman@post-gazette.com .


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