Penn State Football: For Head Coach Tom Bradley, Time is of the Essence
It was 3:57 early on Sunday morning. Tom Bradley, finally home in bed from Columbus and then the office, looked over at his digital alarm clock.
He wasn’t sure whether to get up and head back to work, where he had just left three or so hours ago.
Or whether he should try to get a few more hours of sleep, then head over to the Penn State football complex.
He opted for neither. Instead, clad only in his skivvies, he answered a few texts and voicemails. Few, as in 87. Few, as when you have several hundred.
“I try to answer them all,” says Bradley, “even if it is to say ‘thanks’ or ‘hi.’ ”
Bradley shrugs with that trademark purse-lipped half-smirk. He knows it’s an impossible task, responding to them all. But what isn’t these days?
Bradley’s Samsung smartphone was off the hook early Sunday because the Nittany Lions had defeated Ohio State, 20-14, at The Horseshoe just 12 hours earlier.
It was Bradley’s first win as interim head coach since Joe Paterno was fired 11 days earlier in the wake of the Sandusky child-sexual-abuse scandal. Penn State didn’t need the win to continue its quest for a Big Ten title.
Penn State needed the win for so much more.
ON (TO) WISCONSIN
So now – with just one regular season game left in his 37th campaign as a Penn State player and coach -- history is within his grasp.
He will lead No. 19 Penn State (9-2, 6-1) into Madison against No. 12 Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. It is a showdown to determine who will represent the Big Ten Conference’s Leaders division on Dec. 3 in the conference’s inaugural championship game.
He just won’t lead the team onto the Camp Randall Stadium field.
“This is the players’ team. They go first,” he says by way of an explanation. “That was their win, not mine. They’re doing all the work.”
At his home on Sunday morning, after handling the first round of texts, Bradley slid into a simple all-black ensemble of Nike long-sleeved short and casual slacks. His silver Buick Enclave rolled into the Lasch Building parking lot just after 7:15 a.m.
That’s late for Bradley, and not just since he became the top guy.
Seventy games ago, on Oct. 8, 2005, a 16th-ranked Penn State squad defeated a visiting No. 6 Ohio State, 17-10, before a raucous Beaver Stadium Whiteout crowd of 109,839 for what was undoubtably the biggest home victory in a very long time.
Only a few hours after that night-time victory six years ago, Bradley was back in the Lasch offices – the first coach or player to unlock the front door back then as well as on Sunday. I’ll vouch for that, having stopped by both times.
That consistency is not an accident, although so much has transpired in those six seasons and six weeks. Yet Bradley seems unchanged – despite the pressures that have accompanied the worst two weeks in the 125 years of Penn State football, to say nothing of the 156 years of Penn State itself.
Bradley’s still happy to welcome a fellow early-morning riser, he still makes the first pot of coffee, he’s still cracking wise.
“What are you, bored? You must live some kind of great life to be here this early,” he chuckles, his blue eyes bright and his 50-something face mostly free of the bags that should come with such little sleep.
As he heads down the hallway from the kitchen to his office, it seems as if little has changed over the years. Even though Paterno’s office was cleaned out last Tuesday by his son Scott, Bradley has opted to stay where he is.
His office, where he has been for years, is all of 10 by 12 feet. What’s different is the addition of a black leather sofa since my last visit – “I’ve gotten to know that pretty well lately” – and several neatly-arranged piles of paperwork on his desk.
“This is for third-and-6’s, third-and-7’s against Ohio State,” he says, lifting up two paper-clipped sets of papers. “This is a list of kids who have parking tickets” – a small set of scofflaws, really, for such a large set of undergrads. "I didn’t post the list. I talked to each kid myself.”
His calendar book is open. There are practice outlines, sheets of academic information and schedules. Lots of schedules.
“With everything that’s been going on, what I really felt that I owed the players was a sense of communication, an idea of what exactly is going,” he says, rattling off precise Thanksgiving week instruction lists for walk-ons, injured players, the overall squad.
He glances at his cellphone. It’s almost out of power. He attaches the cell to a power cord and plugs it into the wall, then holds it up, reciting the phone number.
“I do that for the guys and tell them to call my number at any time,” he says. “It’s next to my bed. I hear it blinging all night long.”
Bradley gives four or five examples of how he is trying to share all he can with his players. He does it to keep them in the loop on everything, to ensure that they know – that he believes – the 2011 season belongs to them, not him. That they are empowered.
He’s framing the situation for what it is, providing the overall picture. But it is the players who will determine if it is an artistic success.
No matter how the season turns out – even if the Nittany Lions run the table and win as many as three games, if new president Rod Erickson keeps his pledge to go bowling – Bradley doesn’t know if he’ll return in 2012 to the only employer he has ever known.
“I don’t know what is going to happen after the season. I don’t have time to think about it,” he says. “And it wouldn’t be fair to the players if I did.”
Bradley has made plans, though. Just not the kind you think. Penn State’s team flight from Wisconsin returns to University Park just before midnight next Saturday.
The next morning, the first of Bradley’s nine-day recruiting odyssey will begin. “It’s easy, really,” he says of selling Penn State, whether he gets the job permanently or not. “I believe in us as an institution.”
If the last two games are any indication (as if the preceding 447 contests weren’t enough), Bradley certainly has what it takes to stay. The Nittany Lions played remarkably well on Nov. 12 in an emotionally-charged, emotionally-draining 17-14 loss to Nebraska with only two days to adjust from the Paterno to the Bradley Era.
Under different circumstances, the combination of Bradley leading the show, and Jay Paterno directing the offensive flow along the sideline – the surrogate son and the namesake son, working together – would have had a better chance of an encore performance. Energizing, actually. But now…
QUICK CHANGE ARTIST
Bradley has had to shuffle the deck. And fast. No JoePa, no Mike McQueary. JayPa out of the box. LJ Sr. calling defensive signals along the sidelines, sharing defensive coordinator duties with Ron Vanderlinden. Bradley, the special teams coach decades ago, coaching the kickers.
And then there’s the (suddenly) three quarterbacks – the conventional Matt McGloin and Scrapcats Bill Belton and Curtis Drake.
Bradley points out to the practice field, which he can see through the window along the east wall of his office.
“Belton was just tearing up out there when he was (Nebraska’s Taylor) Martinez with the scout team,” says the excitable Bradley, his cadence increasing as his second cup of coffee kicks in. “We saw what he could do the past 10 days, so we didn’t hesitate about putting it in there for Ohio State.”
He didn’t fear putting in the ’Cat in advance of Wisconsin, allowing Badger boss Bret Bielema and his staff an entire week to dissect it?
“There’s just so much we can run off of it,” says Bradley. “They have a lot to think about. We really haven’t shown that much.”
In Bradley’s case, that’s not true. He’s shown a lot.
In the early morning hours, along an organized sideline, in a pressure-packed press conference, picking a QB, he’s stayed true to form.
He was the first Penn State employee thrown into the fray after the disorganized chaos that ensued after the Attorney General’s report was released. He was composed, somber and serious in the face of dozens of cameras and a couple hundred reporters when he first met the press as the 15th head coach in Penn State football history.
It’s a moment he no doubt had been anticipating for several years. But when it came, it was under circumstances no one could ever want.
Nevertheless, it’s Bradley’s time to rise and shine.
So far, he’s been the ideal man for the job. No wonder they call him Scrap.