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 on Wednesday night given the job of leading the Nittany Lions 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.
Bradley might not get more than four games – against Nebraska, road games against Ohio State and Wisconsin and a bowl.
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 Paterno’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.