Tom Bradley, pictured here observing a practice earlier this spring, has 37 years of coaching experience, all at Penn State.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
I heard a story once about Penn State football that isn’t about Tom Bradley per se, but it gives you a pretty good idea of the type of program Bradley was involved with when he was still cutting his teeth in the coaching profession.
It was the mid-1980s and some of the West Virginia players were studying film of the Nittany Lion team they were about to play. The Mountaineer players saw those all-white uniforms and the coal black shoes and they instantly thought to themselves: big and slow, that’s what Penn State is.
Then, when they got out on the field and lined up across from them they were big – actually, much bigger than they thought – and when the game began they realized that those black shoes were just a ruse. Those guys can run, too!
Another thing about those great Penn State players that Bradley had a hand in coaching (and recruiting) - they could all think on their feet. Whenever the West Virginia players would break the huddle and line up on offense, the Penn State defenders already had a good beat on what West Virginia was going to do.
“They were calling out our plays as we were getting down in our stances – and they were right most of the time,” a former Mountaineer player once told me.
When quarterback Major Harris made his unforgettable touchdown run to begin a rare rout of Penn State here at Mountaineer Field in 1988, the Penn State defense had the play properly diagnosed as Harris began weaving his way through a mass of white jerseys.
The problem was Major went the wrong way, so there were 21 (or 22, depending upon who you talk to) players going in the right direction and Harris going the other way for a touchdown.
A year later, up in State College, a much wiser Penn State defense let Harris run anywhere he wanted. He finished the game with 135 yards rushing and a touchdown, while also throwing for an additional 166 yards.
But what the Nittany Lions did that afternoon was to make sure to punch the football out of Harris’ arms whenever they got to him because they noticed that he always carried the ball like a loaf of bread. The result was a bunch of West Virginia fumbles and a 19-9 Nittany Lion victory.
Today, some 25 years later, everybody is trying to jar the ball loose whenever they can.
Following last Saturday’s practice in Wheeling, Bradley was asked about all those great nationally ranked defenses he had a hand in developing at Penn State, six of them ranking among the nation’s top 15 from 2004-09.
“Am I supposed to say great coaching?” he joked. “I say this all the time, it’s not the Xs and Os, it’s the Jimmies and Joes.”
No question that’s true, but how many times through the years did we watch a Penn State quarterback who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn torch West Virginia’s defense with a timely screen pass that went for a touchdown?
Penn State always seemed to unleash that screen at the right moment in the game just when the Mountaineer defense - frothing at the mouth, ears pinned back and eyeballs bulging - had everyone coming, including the team managers. It was almost like Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown in those old Peanut gags whenever Penn State would throw that screen pass.
How many times through the years did we watch West Virginia complete a long pass that put the ball deep into Penn State territory and a trailing defender, like linebacker Greg Buttle did to Scott MacDonald in 1975, never gave up on the play and came from behind to force a fumble that the Nittany Lions always seemed to recover?
How many of those red zone opportunities came up empty for the Mountaineers through the years?
It seemed like every time WVU played Penn State you’d look at the stat sheet and West Virginia would have almost as many yards as Penn State - and sometimes even more yards than the Lions - and then would end up losing the game 30-0.
How does that happen?
Well, it’s not just about having great football players. It’s about having great football players who understand how to play the game, who fit what you are trying to do, who believe in what you’re doing and play with great passion. And that’s where coaching comes in.
Bradley was asked by a Pittsburgh reporter how important he thought recruiting Western Pa would be to the WVU football program. Since West Virginia and Pitt no longer face each other on the field, I suppose it was a way to stir up the pot a little bit.
Bradley’s reply was telling. It is telling if you really pay attention to what he’s saying.
“Recruiting Western Pa is only good if you get players,” he explained. “There is no sense making a big deal about it just recruiting guys. You need the guys who can make you champions. If there are a lot of guys who can make you champions, then go recruit Western Pa, but if there’s not you can’t just say we’re going to recruit Western Pa if there’s not enough players there.”
“I think one of the things about recruiting that everybody gets wound up about is you can’t listen to all of these guys who say he’s a five-star or a four-star. Believe me, everybody has different opinions about players, but the one thing you have to do is you have to pick the players who are right for your team.
“You’ve got to pick the players who fit your system, and in some years you may not take a certain player. Why? Because you already have three of those type of guys and you have to let that one go. He may be a great player, but because of scholarship limits, you just have to deal with that.”
Unsatisfied with Bradley’s answer, the reporter took one more stab at it.
“But assuming there are players in Western Pa, do you think you, personally, will have an affect on them coming here?” he asked.
“I don’t know if I will or not, but at least I won’t get lost up there,” Bradley quipped.
That’s nearly 40 years worth of coaching experience coming out there. And that is what Mountaineer football is getting with Tom Bradley.