MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Tom Bradley couldn’t help but grin as he told the story of a recent recruiting trip in Western Pennsylvania, the sort of visit he has made for nearly four decades now.
When Bradley entered the high school’s office, a secretary picked up the phone and radioed the football coach. “Coach,” she said, “it’s Tom Bradley from Penn State.” Bradley laughed and whispered, “No, no, it’s West Virginia!”
Yes, this has taken everybody a little getting used to.
No living person has coached more Penn State games than “Scrap” Bradley, but after 33 seasons as Joe Paterno’s right-hand man and two years in the broadcast booth, Bradley is settling into his new role as West Virginia’s senior associate head coach.
“It’s been a big change for me,” Bradley said after a recent practice. “I’m the one asking the questions now. I actually have to look at a practice schedule. I never had to before. I have to look at playbooks. I never had to before.” He put a finger to his temple. “That was all up here.”
Bradley took over as Penn State’s interim head coach for the final four games of the 2011 season after Paterno’s resignation amid the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
When Penn State hired Bill O’Brien as head coach that offseason, Bradley resigned. He spent the past two years in Pittsburgh doing radio and TV work for Clear Channel and CBS Sports Network.
The coaching hiatus wasn’t a matter of closed doors or a lack of offers, Bradley said.
“I actually might have learned more by doing what I did, taking the time away and getting around different programs,” Bradley said.
Now back in the coaching saddle, Bradley looks relaxed and wears his familiar, friendly smile, but the self-described “creature of habit” admits there have been plenty of adjustments to make in the transition — a new schedule, a new staff and a hyper-tempo pace of play.
“If you go work at a new place, you don’t walk in the first day as the expert, do you?” Bradley asked, then added, chuckling. “Well, I guess some guys do.”
A needed upgrade
West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck can’t pinpoint the exact moment he knew Bradley would land at West Virginia. It was a bit of a lengthy progression, really.
Luck said he kept an eye on Bradley when he left Penn State, and the two met for lunch or a beer in Pittsburgh a few times in the past two years.
“Tom had told me initially that he needed some time off,” Luck said. “Most coaches who are away from the game want to get back into it, but it was such an unusual circumstance at Penn State that I thought Tom was very sincere that he needed a little time just to process everything.”
Luck offered Bradley an open invitation to visit Morgantown and meet with head coach Dana Holgorsen, saying, “Who knows where it may lead? It may lead to nothing; it may lead to you joining our staff.”
After West Virginia’s 4-8 finish last fall, a season in which the defense allowed 454.3 yards and 33.3 points per game, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson left for Arizona State. Holgorsen elevated safeties coach Tony Gibson to defensive coordinator and asked Bradley if he would come aboard.
“Given our problems defensively, clearly a guy like [Bradley] was really interesting for us,” Luck said. “Dana and I knew we needed to upgrade our staff.”
Luck said there was “no hesitation whatsoever” in hiring Bradley, despite widespread sentiment that Bradley and much of the former Penn State staff had been blackballed by colleges, a notion Bradley wholeheartedly rejects.
“Being a nerdy lawyer,” Luck said, he read the Freeh Report on Penn State “cover to cover” when it was released in July 2012 and re-read it this spring when discussions began about hiring Bradley. He recalled reminding West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee that Bradley wasn’t once mentioned in the report.
Coach at heart
For those who worked with Bradley at Penn State, it’s a bittersweet time. They always knew “Scrap” would find his way back to the sideline, but it’s still a shock to see him anywhere but University Park.
“I thought he would be at Penn State forever,” said longtime Penn State assistant Dick Anderson.
“I couldn’t really see any of us anywhere but Penn State,” said former assistant Kermit Buggs, who has coached at Lock Haven, Connecticut and now Old Dominion since leaving Penn State in 2011. “But things happened and we all moved on.”
Jay Paterno, who spent 17 seasons on Penn State’s coaching staff, visited Bradley at West Virginia’s spring practices in April.
“It was good to see him back on the field and really doing what he was put here to do,” Paterno said. “After you spend 33 years at one school, it’s not easy to go coach somewhere else. I’ll be watching every Saturday, and I’ll be rooting for him.”
Paterno applauded West Virginia for making the hire, saying Luck “had enough moxie, enough guts to see past what other people might not see.”
“They knew what they were getting in Tom Bradley,” Paterno said. “And they didn’t let any of this negative stuff that may have attached itself to some of us three years ago at Penn State affect that. They were able to see beyond that.”
The former coaches speak of the Sandusky scandal and the dismantling of the Penn State dynasty in cautious terms — “when everything happened,” “the whole situation,” “the circumstances.” What is clear, though, is their unison delight that Bradley has landed on his feet.
“There is still so much turmoil here,” said former Penn State assistant Booker Brooks, who coached the receivers from 1968-83 and now lives in University Park. “There’s huge turmoil even within me, and I’m not even involved with the program. It was just so disheartening for everybody involved.
“It took some time for everybody to move on. I’m glad to see [Bradley] is back into it, because he’s a football coach at heart and not a media guy.”
A key to West Virginia’s success, Holgorsen said, will be having continuity on the coaching staff. Bradley, even as the new guy in town, understands that better than anyone.
“There’s no program in the country that had more continuity than [Penn State] did,” Holgorsen said. “It probably will never happen again.”
Defensive tackle Kyle Rose said Bradley’s track record and credentials command another level of respect from players.
“Coach Bradley is a wealth of knowledge,” Rose said. “Any time he’s opening his mouth, I’m trying to gather up as much from him as I can. … He’s coached some of the best players ever, LaVar Arrington being one. When he’s coached guys like that, you can only hope you would measure up to them.”
Bradley said there’s plenty to adjust to, but working with players “comes right back.” On what he learned being away from coaching, he said, “I learned that I don’t have all the right answers, that’s for sure.”
As he spoke, Bradley settled deeper into his seat and smiled.
How’s being back, Scrap?
“No complaints yet,” he said. “No complaints.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.