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Penn State's Bradley Gets Fresh Start At West Virginia

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Just as Joe Paterno's statue disappeared from Penn State's campus, Tom Bradley vanished from the college football sidelines. After three seasons away from the game, he's getting a fresh start at West Virginia. Photo by David Dermer/Getty Images.
Just as Joe Paterno's statue disappeared from Penn State's campus, Tom Bradley vanished from the college football sidelines. After three seasons away from the game, he's getting a fresh start at West Virginia. Photo by David Dermer/Getty Images.

After three seasons away from the sidelines, Tom Bradley is returning. The career of one of college football’s greatest defensive minds is being resurrected.

West Virginia announced last month that Bradley will join coach Dana Holgorsen’s staff as senior associate head coach. His first challenge? Navigating a football life beyond State College, Pa.

Bradley has known no other sideline than Penn State's since the mid-1970s. He played for Joe Paterno, then joined his staff after graduating in 1979. In 2000, he was promoted to defensive coordinator (ironically, Jerry Sandusky’s old post). When charges of sexual abuse led to Sandusky’s arrest and Paterno’s dismissal in 2011, Bradley was assigned the thankless task of taking over as interim coach. A better title would have been "captain of a sinking ship."

He resigned after the season, ending 33 years at Penn State. Although Bradley moved on, the stain from the scandal clearly lingered.

Malcolm Moran, currently the director of Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, covered Penn State football for the New York Times and USA Today before joining the university in 2006 as the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society for the college of communications. Moran believes that Bradley's inability to land another coaching position was directly related to the scandal.

“Unquestionably,” he said. “There’s no other explanation. Scandal aside, if Tom Bradley was ever on the open market, there would be a line around the block. Before this happened, he would’ve been snapped up in a nanosecond.”

But as details of Sandusky’s abuse emerged, doubts surrounded anyone close to the football program. In some people's minds, to be a member of the institution was to be complicit in its misdeeds.

“There was definitely guilt by association,” Moran said. “There was no presumption of innocence.”

Perhaps that’s understandable. The Sandusky scandal portrayed a football culture that took precedence over the safety of young boys, leading to a cover-up. But Moran maintains that the opposite was possible in Bradley's case. “Just because he worked under Jerry Sandusky doesn’t mean he knew what was going on," he said.

In a searing piece for the New Yorker entitled "In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away With It," Malcolm Gladwell revealed how ignorance to heinous acts can be cultivated by a pedophile. Speaking with psychologists who have studied sexual abusers, Gladwell wrote that “a pedophile is someone adept not just at praying on children but at confusing, deceiving, and charming the adults responsible for their children.”

The process is called “grooming.” And it’s common. As Gladwell wrote, “This process by which child molesters ingratiate themselves into a community" didn’t strike first at Penn State. So if anything, Bradley might have been guilty of falling under Sandusky’s spell. His sentence, until now, was time spent in coaching purgatory, mainly doing radio gigs.

Not Easy To Make The Break

In a piece Moran wrote for USA Today in 2005, Bradley offered this nugget in discussing the coaching staff’s future at Penn State: “It’s a very hard place to leave."

Until, apparently, he was left with little choice.

Three years later Bradley has been granted a second chance. The question on the minds of West Virginia fans will not be what he leaves behind, but what he brings.

Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette already has sung his praises, writing that “a good coach and a good man is back where he belongs.” Cook calls the Penn State product a “terrific defensive tactician” and a “dynamic recruiter, among the best in the country.”

Bradley led a Penn State defense from 2004 to 2009 that finished in the Top 15 in scoring and total production each season. So the stats back him up.

So does Moran.

"[He brings] proven championship-level performance,” he said. “Just look at the defensive players from Penn State that are playing in the [National Football] League. The [players] that have evolved from that program provide all of the evidence that you need.”

Beyond the proven performance (something that perhaps carried too much weight in State College), Bradley also brings a proven personality to Morgantown, one that's much brighter than the shadow cast by the events of 2011. Moran knew him as a reporter and as a season-ticket holder, and he saw a different person than what was portrayed by the tight-lipped, circle-the-wagons culture exposed with the scandal.

“Penn State had a reputation for limited access,” he said. “I always felt in dealing with [Bradley] that he was always straightforward. He didn’t dodge the questions. He was genuine. He was honest.”

Moran also noted Bradley's sense of humor and humble self-deprecation. Both were on display in his 2005 USA Today article. At the time, Paterno had 352 wins and the question was: How many more would there be?

“I’ve probably cost him about 20 more,” Bradley said in the article. “I told him if I didn’t play for him, he’d have 360, and if I didn’t coach for him, he’d have 370. He stuck his head in my office and told me it would be more like 380.”

Dark Times

In the wake of the Sandusky scandal, many of those wins were vacated, along with the upbeat personality of Tom Bradley.

“When he became interim head coach, the program had been through a devastating time,” Moran said. “One of the things that reminded me of how sad that whole episode was [came] at his first press conference as head coach when he was advised to tone down his sense of humor. It was almost as if, in that limited availability, it wasn’t Tom. He wasn’t himself. When you took away his sense of humor, it was just some other person that looked like him.

“There was just a sadness about the whole place,” he added. “There were times you would struggle to keep your own emotions in check. And one of those moments was during his introductory press conference.”

It’s no wonder that Bradley seemed like a changed man. He had been on the sideline with Paterno for more than 30 years. He admitted at the time that “Coach Paterno meant more to me than anyone except my father.” He later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Following Joe would have been challenging under any circumstance, but with everything swirling around, it was very difficult.”

Now he’s back, and West Virginia will receive his defensive mind, his recruiting know-how, his Pennsylvania connections and his personality. All of it will be resurrected in Morgantown, where the Mountaineers ranked 100th in the FBS in points allowed last season, where the recruiting base is a moving target, and where facing the toughest schedule in a difficult conference calls for a straightforward, honest man.

In many ways, Bradley was Penn State. He was a student, a player, a coach, a JoePa disciple. Hopefully, at last, he can overcome the scandal that engulfed him.

Maybe it's fitting that after decades at State College he finds himself a Mountaineer. Maybe he can finally rise above the controversy in Happy Valley and continue his coaching career. By all accounts, Bradley deserves the opportunity.