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Tom Bradley Took The Long Way Home

by on February 08, 2018 9:45 PM

Tom Bradley, the Steelers' new defensive backs coach, took the long way home.

And, true to form and his nickname, it was a scrap to get there.

But he's now back in Pittsburgh, his adopted home. (Truth be told, in many ways he never left.)

Johnstown is Bradley's hometown and State College will forever be where his heart is.

Now, and almost forever, though, Bradley has felt most at home in Pittsburgh. Comfortable. Sometimes care-free. Always a coach. Forever chatting folks up. Not under the microscope of tiny State College.

Like Cheers, everyone having anything to do with football in the Steel City — high school, college, the Stillers — knows his name there.

Scrap. Tommy. Coach. In high schools where he recruited. Spots around town. Golf courses. The Steelers' practice field, where he spent a lot of time after leaving Penn State, working the team's radio pre- and post-game shows.

Among his legion of Pittsburgh buddies is a Penn Hills native who went to Pittsburgh Central Catholic. They frequently crossed paths on the recruiting trail and occasionally shared a beverage and a sandwich, talking offense vs. defense and the trials and tribulations of the coaching profession. Guy by the name of Joe Moorhead.

HOME RUN

So, for Bradley to finish his coaching career in Pittsburgh makes sense.

He still owns a home there.

His brother Jim lives and works is there.

A stalwart defensive back at Penn State from 1971-74 and winner of Pittsburgh's prestigious Dapper Dan College Football award, Jim is the Steelers' orthopedic surgeon — and has been for 27 years, four Super Bowls and just about a dozen games shy of 500 games — and has been voted “top sports medicine specialist in the Pittsburgh region."

When Tom took the defensive coordinators' job at UCLA in 2015, after a one-year stint as West Virginia's senior associate head coach (a job title so convoluted and highfalutin that you have to wonder why CJF hasn't handed it out yet at PSU), Jim knew that his younger brother would do just fine.

“Tom’s really a people person,” Jim told me for a story I wrote at the time. “When we were kids, I had about six friends I liked to hang around with. He had about 40. It’s all about relationships. Tom forms very good relationships. People inherently trust him because he’s not trying to do something he shouldn’t do. He’s not an ‘I’ guy. Once he gets his defense around him, he will protect them like a rabid dog.

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“Tom’s a coach. That’s what he does. I think he’s going to do great because he’s extremely talented. And it helps getting to work with a head coach (Jim Mora) who was an NFL guy. He’s going to do fine.”

Jim also knew that while Tom was working on the West Coast, his brother's heart was still where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet to form the Ohio.

Jim laughed when we talked a few weeks after Tom went to work for Mora at UCLA.

“There’s a direct flight," Jim pointed out, "from L.A. to Pittsburgh.”

RECRUITER U

Pittsburgh was Bradley's recruiting territory when he was an assistant coach at Penn State. He mined linebackers like Sean Lee, Paul Posluszny, Brandon Short and LaVar Arrington from there. He penned over 30 letters to Justin King — a current Nittany Lion recruiting assistant and stepson of PSU cornerback coach Terry Smith, a Pittsburgher himself — to get King to come to Happy Valley from there. (And Bradley would keep one of the letters framed on a shelf in his Lasch Building office as a reminder to work, and write, even harder.)

Not that Bradley doesn't consider Penn State special. He does.

And how could he not?

He was a part of Penn State football for 451 games, his last when he was interim head coach in a lopsided loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. That’s second-most in Penn State football history, to Joe Paterno.

As a player from 1975-78, Bradley was nicknamed “Scrap” for a blood-and-guts type of play that characterized the Nittany Lions’ special teams. He played on squads that went a combined 38-10, including back-to-back 11-1 seasons.

As an assistant coach he helped Penn State to a 286-111-2 record. Overall, while playing and coaching for the Nittany Lions, he amassed a record of 325-124-2.

"What do these numbers mean?" I asked Bradley in a private moment on the day before his last game at Penn State.

“They mean that I have been blessed,” he replied.

“If I never get to be the permanent head coach, that won’t define me. What those numbers represent – the loyalty to one institution — that says what I am all about.”

SUPER FAN

He's still a Penn Stater through and through.

Minutes after the Super Bowl was over Sunday, Bradley couldn't resist. The Eagles' center, Stefen Wisniewski, played at Penn State and came to PSU from Bridgeville, a Pittsburgh suburb. Bradley helped coach his dad, Leo, a D-lineman at Penn State, and his uncle Steve, an All-American guard at PSU as well.

"Good to see Stefen, a guy I recruited to Penn State, win it!!!" he texted back to State College.

Penn State still occupies a big chunk of his heart. Of course, all that transpired over six years also ripped it and him apart, as did not getting the chance to be Penn State's 15th head coach. In the mid-2000s, he was a virtual lock to succeed Paterno, but it in the end it lasted only four games, under circumstances no one ever wanted.

He was a tremendous defensive coordinator at Penn State. From 2004-09 he led Penn State to six consecutive Top 15 finishes in total and scoring defense, and from 2004-11 Penn State held 53 of its 88 opponents to 17 points or fewer, including 10 games in the 2009 season. From 2004-11, Penn State’s defense ranked in the Top 10 nationally in points allowed seven times and the Top 20 in total defense seven times. The 2008 Penn State defense was one of only four groups to rank in the Top 10 nationally in rushing, total and scoring defense, as well as lead the Big 10 in both rushing and total defense. He was twice named defensive coordinator of the year, by Rivals and The Associated Press.

Often, late in Paterno's career, when the head coach was in the press box or at home with injuries or following surgery, Bradley ran the show along the Penn State sidelines, adroitly and without fanfare. He was there when Penn State beat Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks in 2008 — the only team to pull off such a feat in the past half-century.

In a storybook ending, Bradley would have permanently succeeded his mentor. But that chapter of Penn State and Penn State football didn't end well for almost anyone.

THE ROAD BACK

Bradley made the most of it, staying connected with football as a TV analyst for mid-level college games — he knows the back roads from Pittsburgh to West Point like the back of his hand — and also did some Steelers radio work. Then, it was on to Morgantown.

And, most recently, L.A. He lived by the beach, but rarely dipped his toe in the Pacific. Traffic drove him mad, making the Squirrel Hill Tunnel backup look like Allen Street. He was with the Bruins for three seasons, including the 2017 campaign, when as many as eight of his defensive starters went down with injuries.

Mora got fired. Chip Kelly was hired. And Bradley was out of a job.

Like Dick Clark, Scrap — how old is he, really? 52? 62? — never ages. And he always bounces back.

His latest bounce carried him 2,465 miles from Westwood to Heinz Field. He just took the long way home.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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