STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- It's been well known around Penn State that assistant Tom Bradley has longed to become a head coach. Bradley finally got his opportunity on Wednesday night, in the process giving new poignance to the "be careful what you wish for" cliché.
The Nittany Lions lifer -- Bradley played for Joe Paterno and has spent the past 33 years on staff -- was handed the keys to the program on Wednesday night by acting president Rod Erickson. The man who succeeded Jerry Sandusky as defensive coordinator now must somehow try to hold the team together in the wake of a scandal that has forever changed the image of the school and the man Bradley has so loyally served.
The toll it has taken on him already was evident Thursday morning, when Penn State officially introduced Bradley as its interim coach at a news conference. Normally outgoing and quick with a joke, Bradley was understandably somber as he answered questions for 25 minutes in a packed media room. He admitted to having mixed emotions and "a heavy heart" in taking over for Paterno.
"It's obviously a very unprecedented situation we find ourselves in," he said. "We've got to find a way to restore the confidence and start the healing process with everybody."
Easier said than done. Bradley, despite his excellent credentials and a defense this year that's among the very best in the country, has no shot at getting the job on a permanent basis. He's too tied into the people who have taken the fall for the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, even if he said Thursday that he wasn't aware of the details of the Sandusky allegations in 1998 or 2002. (Bradley refused to go into any more detail about what he did or didn't know about Sandusky. "I've been advised not to do that, OK?" he said. "By counsel.")
So instead, his job becomes about maintaining some sanity over the final three games, beginning Saturday in the home finale against Nebraska. The Nittany Lions still can win a Big Ten championship and will make the league title game simply by winning two of their final three. But the players must keep their focus after a surreal week. Many of them went downtown Wednesday night to watch their fellow students pour into the streets in protest, and Bradley said several of the team's leaders came by his office late that night to talk things over.
Bradley said he let the players know that expectations haven't changed.
"They're a very resilient group," he said. "They'll come to play on Saturday."
The actual game operations shouldn't change too much for Penn State. Assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden will serve as co-defensive coordinators. Paterno wasn't exactly heavily involved on game day, spending the vast majority of this season in the press box on Saturdays because of his health.
But not having Paterno at a Nittany Lions game for the first time in nearly 60 years will be very different. Bradley had to hold back his emotions a couple of times during the news conference when he was asked about his feelings for Paterno.
"Coach Paterno has meant more to me than anybody except my father," he said. "Coach Paterno will go down in history as one of the greatest men. Maybe most of you know him as a great football coach. I've had the privilege and the honor to work for him, spend time with him. And he's had such a dynamic impact on so many, so many -- I'll say it again -- so many people's and players' lives. It's with great respect that I speak of him, and I'm proud to say that I worked for him."
For someone who admitted he hadn't slept in the past 24 hours, Bradley handled a very difficult press conference about as well as anyone could expect. That in itself was an accomplishment. Penn State had spent the previous five days bungling every possible public relations opportunity, from president Graham Spanier's ridiculous statement of "unconditional support" on Saturday, to the last-minute cancellation of Paterno's Tuesday press conference to Wednesday night's chaotic free-for-all when the board of trustees announced the dismissal of Spanier and Paterno. About the only people who have acquitted themselves well in this whole mess so far have been the players who spoke to the media on Wednesday and Bradley.
But Thursday was just the beginning of what looks like the nearly impossible task of cleaning up a stained program. This is in no way how Tom Bradley wanted to become a head coach. The loyal Penn State servant must do the best he can to make things a little better.