It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Just one week ago, Tom Bradley was the leader of one of the best defenses in the country. He had been involved with Penn State since he started as a player in 1977. Sure, he could’ve left for the University of Pittsburgh or Temple or any other number of colleges that have offered him a head coaching job over the years, but his loyalty to Joe Paterno and the Penn State way kept him in Happy Valley.
It was the only thing Coach Bradley had ever known. He had only one goal for 34 years: making sure the Penn State football program lived up to its ideals. And maybe, after Coach Paterno finally decided to hang it up, Tom Bradley would become the next head coach. By all accounts, Bradley wanted the job and had Paterno’s endorsement.
And so it was, that on that fateful Wednesday night when the board of trustees ousted Joe Paterno as head football coach, Tom Bradley finally got his wish.
This was never the way he wanted that wish to come true.
But it did, and Tom Bradley became the fifteenth head coach in Penn State football history, thrust head first into the middle of a conference championship chase and a hurting town that badly needed leadership. I’m sure Bradley sees the writing on the wall – most people assume that after this season the remaining coaching staff will be cleaned out as the program starts from scratch. Many coaches would go through these last four (or five) games just hoping to come out with some dignity intact.
Not Tom Bradley.
Penn State is the only thing Tom Bradley has ever known. No matter where Bradley ends up next season, Penn State will always be first in his heart. Joe Paterno was his mentor, a father figure to him for all these years, and Bradley had a personal duty to him to finish out this season with class. He had a duty to this town and these students, to whom he has dedicated his entire life, to fight through this dark week together.
And that’s just what “Scrap” did. When the team came out Saturday morning for walk-throughs, Bradley was given a standing ovation by the students. Immediately, Bradley tipped his cap and jumped up on the risers leading up to the student section and walked down the entire line, shaking every student’s hand individually.
Most students probably knew little about Tom Bradley before this week. A humble man, dedicated to this University, walking along the line shaking our hands out of appreciation– that is just about all anyone needs to know about the kind of character Tom Bradley embodies.
When the dust settled on Saturday, and Penn State came out a little bit short, most interim coaches would have gone into the locker room and started looking around at jobs for next season. Once again, Tom Bradley’s character wouldn’t allow that.
As the team jogged off the field, and the students gave a standing ovation, Tom Bradley walked behind. There he stood, in the opening of the tunnel, and removed his hat. He pointed at every section of students in appreciation not only for the last three hours of support, but of a lifetime of support. He gave a slight bow, and for just one more moment, after a week that none of us want to ever experience again, we all came together.
No matter where Tom Bradley ends up next year, and no matter how successful these next few football games are, Tom Bradley will be remembered as someone who helped provide hope when we all desperately needed it. As Penn Staters, we should all be eternally grateful for that.