Tom Bradley was Joe Paterno's likely heir when his career took an unexpected turn and nearly ended. Now at UCLA, he's back as a defensive coordinator.
Tom Bradley has learned to adjust in the nearly two months since he was hired as UCLA’s defensive coordinator. He knows that if his usual path to Sunset Boulevard gets cut off, he can jump on the Santa Monica Freeway, cut across, keep going to Beverly Glen and then cut back up to Sunset. He knows the music the Bruins play at practices is a bit different than what he’s familiar with, though he appreciated when coach Jim Mora threw on the Temptations’ “My Girl” for him last week.
What Bradley doesn’t know are the unique details of every player on his roster, at least not like he used to. How could he? A guy whose prior coordinator gig came at a school at which he spent 33 years can only pick up so much in two months.
Bradley began his coaching career as a Penn State graduate assistant in 1979 after he finished playing defensive back for the Nittany Lions. He served in a variety of roles before becoming the defensive coordinator in 2000. Popular speculation pegged him as the likely successor to Joe Paterno after retirement.
“It would be purely speculation to determine what the administration would have done,” says Bill Kenney, who coached at Penn State with Bradley for 24 years. “But Tom certainly had the qualifications to succeed Joe.”
However, tragedy and scandal intervened. Instead of leaving Penn State on his own terms, Paterno was fired on Nov. 9, 2011, after news broke of the horrifying sexual abuse crimes perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky, Bradley’s predecessor as defensive coordinator. Bradley worked the rest of the season as the interim head coach, but despite a lengthy investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh that ultimately never mentioned Bradley’s name, he was passed over for the permanent position and chose to leave the program.
“He did an outstanding job at a time when we faced really tragic adversity,” Kenney says of Bradley’s time as interim head coach. “He has head coaching chops.”
But Bradley would rather not talk about Penn State. He says he is “trying to get these [UCLA] guys better, and that’s my mindset.” Indeed, it’s hard to criticize his reticence when Kenney says Bradley “was so hurt by everything that took place, I know he agonized whether or not he would get back in to coaching, even though it was his life.”
After spending two seasons as a football analyst for CBS Sports Network, Bradley returned to the sidelines last season as the senior associate head coach at West Virginia. He helped the Mountaineers improve from 33.3 points allowed per game to 27.6. When UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich left this off-season for the Atlanta Falcons, Mora hired Bradley to replace him on Feb. 24. As West Virginia had determined the year before, UCLA was satisfied that any alleged cover-up of Sandusky's crimes at Penn State had no connection to Bradley.
“Our university and our athletic department in combination did a tremendous job of just making sure we went through the process in the correct way and did our research,” Mora told reporters after the Bruins’ first spring practice on March 31. “You can use the word ‘vet.’ We were patient, we talked to a lot of people.”
The job and the location are big changes for Bradley, who grew up in Johnstown, Pa., and had previously never coached more than 100 miles from there. The bigger adjustment, though, is he has yet to go through a recruiting cycle and doesn’t know his UCLA players all that well. “I haven’t been in homes or know where they come from,” Bradley says. “When I get to know them as a person, I can do a better job coaching, so I’ve been trying to play catch-up there.”
The lack of familiarity matters more than just on the field. If a player was struggling academically at Penn State, Bradley knew his course load and could contact his family. At UCLA, Bradley is still learning his players’ support systems.
Bradley is more in synch during practices. He is busy installing the physical, fundamentally sound, bend-but-don’t-break defense he was famous for at Penn State. Between 2004 and ’09, the Nittany Lions never finished lower than 10th nationally in scoring defense.
“He doesn’t care how many yards of offense we give up,” UCLA junior linebacker Myles Jack says. “He doesn’t care about that. At the end of the day, all that really matters to him is points. I completely agree with that. If [our opponents] get 400 yards and zero points, we can laugh about that.”
While Bradley’s defenses have been consistently stout, he faces a new challenge in the Pac-12, where the offenses of Oregon, Arizona and Washington State bear little resemblance to what he saw in the Big Ten. He isn't worried, though, as he has the full spring and summer to prepare against offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s spread attack. A more traditional offense would be tougher, he says.
“If we got into a power game and people wanted to give us off-tackle powers and different things of that type of game—tosses, sweeps and all those different things—then we’d have to figure out a way to duplicate that,” Bradley says. “The other stuff comes easy.”
Some aspects of Bradley’s job haven’t changed a bit. He says Mora plans to use him to recruit his familiar territory in the Northeast, where Bradley landed standouts like Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington and Paul Posluszny for Penn State. “All those guys that thought they were rid of me,” Bradley says of his high school connections in the region, “they’re not rid of me yet.”
It’s good to keep some things the same. After all, there is only so much room to adjust beyond the traffic and music lessons.