STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Tom Bradley’s eyes welled up when he was asked about his former boss.
“Coach Paterno has meant more to me than anybody except my father,” Penn State’s first new football coach since 1966 said Thursday. “I don’t want to get emotional talking about that.”
There is not a person in Happy Valley more loyal to Joe Paterno than Bradley, now the Nittany Lions’ interim coach. The 84-year-old Paterno was fired late Wednesday night by the school’s board of trustees amid claims that he and other university officials did not do enough to report allegations of sexual abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who is charged with assaulting eight children over a 15-year period.
Bradley’s feelings about Paterno are unwavering.
“Coach Paterno will go down in history as one of the greatest men,” said Bradley, who has played and worked for Paterno for the last 35 years. “Most of you know him as a great football coach. I’ve had the privilege and honor to work for him, spend time with him. He’s had such a dynamic impact on so many, so many — I’ll say it again — so many people and players’ lives.
“It’s with great respect that I speak of him, and I’m proud to say that I’ve worked for him.”
Bradley, once considered the favorite in-house candidate to succeed Paterno in more routine fashion, was given the job of leading the Nittany Lions on Wednesday night with his school in turmoil.
“We’re obviously in a very unprecedented situation,” he said, sitting in the same spot where Paterno held court with the media for years. “I have to find a way to restore the confidence … it’s with very mixed emotions and heavy hearts that we go through this.”
History shows that replacing a revered and beloved coach can be one of the most difficult jobs in college football.
When Ohio State was looking for a replacement for Woody Hayes, fired after punching a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl, the story goes that Lou Holtz, then the coach at Arkansas, was asked about the job and said: “I don’t want to be the guy who follows Woody Hayes. I want to be the guy who follows the guy who follows Woody Hayes.”
Earle Bruce was the guy who replaced Hayes. Bruce was coach at Iowa State before being tapped by his alma mater in 1979. Like Bradley, Bruce worked and played for the man he was replacing. The Buckeyes faithful were skeptical.
“It’s always difficult to replace a legend because you’re always going to be compared to that legend,” said former Ohio State All-America linebacker Chris Spielman, now an analyst for ESPN who is working the Nebraska-Penn State game in Happy Valley on Saturday.
Bruce said he was fortunate because he had the support of the person who mattered most.
“To tell you the truth, coach Hayes made it an easy transition,” Bruce said in a phone interview Thursday. “The one thing you do need if the guy is going to be there, he better be supportive or that’s bad.”
Bruce went 81-26-1 in nine seasons at Ohio State, a terrific success at many schools. But he never won a national title and he never reached the status of Hayes with the Buckeyes.
It’s been worse for others.
Ray Perkins lasted only four seasons after he replaced Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama in 1983. Bryant retired after the 1982 season and died a month later. Frank Solich was Tom Osborne’s hand-picked successor at Nebraska in 1998. Solich made it six years and went 58-19, but the program clearly slipped during his tenure.
Bradley might not get more than four games — Saturday’s against Nebraska, road games against Ohio State and Wisconsin and a bowl game.
Still, he had no reservations taking over after Paterno’s 46-year tenure on the sideline, even in these grim days.
Nicknamed “Scrap” for his scrappy style on special teams while a player at Penn State, Bradley is known for his animated machinations on the sideline while calling plays or moving defenders around the field.
But he showed little emotion during the half-hour news conference except when talking about Paterno, Division I’s winningest coach with 409 victories. Bradley had been JoePa’s top field lieutenant the last 11 years.
In recent years, when various health problems have relegated Paterno to watching games from the coaches’ box instead of being on the sideline, Bradley has been in charge on the sideline.
“It will be business as usual on that sideline on Saturday,” he said.
The 55-year-old Bradley said he found out he was the new coach while watching game film. He called Paterno about 11 p.m. Wednesday, but declined to say what they discussed.
“I think that’s personal in nature,” Bradley said.
Bradley encouraged Penn State students, some of whom scuffled with police Wednesday night after Paterno was fired, to act with class at Saturday’s game. He also said his team, which had met earlier in the morning, would be ready to play.
In the days since Sandusky, Paterno’s onetime heir apparent, was charged, the scandal has claimed Penn State’s storied coach, its president, its athletic director and a vice president. Sandusky has denied the charges against him through his attorney.
“We all have a responsibility to take care of our children. All of us,” Bradley said.
Bradley replaced Sandusky as defensive coordinator following the 1999 season, and testified before the grand jury that indicted Sandusky and two other university officials, who are accused of failing to notify authorities about alleged abuse. The new coach declined several times to answer any questions about his involvement or testimony, finally saying he had been advised not to by attorneys.
Bradley’s blue-and -white roots go back more than three decades. He went from special teams captain to graduate assistant in 1979, and has been in Happy Valley ever since. He took over as defensive coordinator after Sandusky resigned in 1999, and the No. 12 Nittany Lions (8-1) are third in the country in scoring defense (12.4 points per game) this year. They rank eighth in total defense (282.3 yards per game).
“I am who I am, I’m not going to change,” Bradley said. “I’m not going to pretend I’m somebody else.”
Bradley grew up in Johnstown, a western Pennsylvania mining town, as the second oldest of seven kids (three boys and four girls). His father, Jim, played basketball for Pittsburgh but, like many Irish Catholics, the Bradleys’ football allegiances were to Notre Dame. The Penn State connection started with his older brother, Jim, who played defensive back for Paterno from 1973-74.
Tom played defensive back from ’77-78, and his younger brother, Matt, was a linebacker from ’79-81.
“If anybody’s groomed for the job, it’s him,” said former Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin, now with the New York Jets. “He’s been around there about as long as just about any of the other coaches. He’s going to be as familiar with the staff as anybody else that they would be able to find in such short notice to handle the job the rest of the year. I’m sure he has the team’s support and everything.”
Bradley acknowledged the magnitude of the job ahead of him, saying he had not slept. Asked when he might, Bradley flashed one of the few smiles of the morning.
“Do I look that bad?” he said.
Ralph D. Russo reported from New York. AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed from Florham Park, N.J.