Commentary

Tom Bradley can't win at Penn State

The university isn't doing him, or itself, any favors with its slow coaching search

Originally Published: December 20, 2011
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

It makes no sense whatsoever for Penn State to give Tom Bradley its head coaching job. The idea of turning the program over to a man who spent the last 31 years as an assistant coach there is inconceivable. Everybody at the university is professing a commitment to a new-look Penn State, but there's no new look if Bradley's in charge. Fair or not, Bradley figures to be collateral damage in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

And that's a shame, because the one guy Penn State would have the hardest time selling on a national scale as its next football coach might very well be the most qualified and best candidate for the job.

[+] EnlargeTom Bradley
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesIf they intended to recruit at all, why would Tom Bradley and Penn State delay the naming of the next head coach?

It must be said, of course, that Bradley's plight is minor when the big scheme of things includes an alleged serial child rapist who apparently peddled his influence with the university and a high-profile charity to lure young boys. But assuming Bradley was not part of the cover-up, and there's no indication to date that he was, it's entirely within your rights to feel a little sorry for him.

As the interim head coach, Bradley has the unenviable job of attempting to persuade committed recruits to stick with the program and play for Penn State. (He's also dealing with a brawling quarterback and wide receiver who have an itch to become the Oakland Raiders of the mid-1970s, but that's beside the point.) Three recruits already have jumped, and one huge prospect -- Noah Spence of Harrisburg -- announced his commitment to Ohio State on Monday. There were indications Spence would have committed to Penn State under different circumstances, and others who have committed to Penn State are taking a look around.

The big question: Why has Penn State taken more than 40 days to name a head coach? First, there is the obvious. According to an agent who represents a number of major college coaches, there may be a good reason for it. "The Penn State job is a toxic situation -- everybody is steering clear of it," the agent told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday. And conversations with a few Pennsylvania high school coaches reveal another possible reason: Bradley has asked the new administration to hold off on announcing a head coach -- whether it's him or not -- until after the Nittany Lions' Jan. 2 bowl game. It's a plea for a small slice of calm; the team can concentrate on getting ready for the University of Houston without next season's head coach looming. At best it's a risky move, especially at a time when the future of the program hangs in the balance; at worst it's self-destructive.

You could easily make the argument, and I would agree, that this year's recruiting class shouldn't be of any importance to Penn State. The university's first priority should be figuring out how so many people in power could apparently manage to be ignorant and/or negligent about the Sandusky allegations for more than a decade.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesUnresolved situations at Penn State and Pitt are allowing Ohio State's Urban Meyer to flex some recruiting muscle in Pennsylvania.

But the school's questionable decision to play in a bowl game under the current climate indicates it is committed to the importance of the football program. If you really wanted to dedicate yourself to the job of reassembling the program's dignity, you'd end this season as fast as possible. You'd lock the doors to the football facility, close Beaver Stadium for the winter and hope to come back in the spring with some pride intact.

But Penn State didn't do that, which is where recruiting and Bradley come back into play. The Nittany Lions shouldn't expect any mercy. Coaches are like turkey vultures circling a kill. When they latch on to the smell of decay, they're not going to wait around. When you've made a career of selling dreams out of the trunk of a car (figuratively, we assume), it isn't that big a deal to poach a five-star recruit with dreams of a better football future. The instability at Penn State and Pitt, where Todd Graham left in a hurry after one year, is a dream for new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. There's so much talk of Meyer owning Pennsylvania recruiting over the next few years -- even with the one-year bowl ban the NCAA levied against Ohio State on Tuesday -- that it's considered a foregone conclusion.

Bradley has been loyal and patient, and nothing says loyalty like a guy roaming the state trying to sell kids on an idea he probably won't be around to realize. And this loyalty is a pertinent topic; a look around indicates it isn't a requisite quality in his profession. Graham left Pitt for Arizona State after one resounding 6-6 season, and he had the courage and fortitude to inform his players of his decision via text message. And, according to reports, it wasn't even a direct text message. It was sent from Graham to the school's director of football operations and forwarded from there. Profiles in courage, indeed.

How many times do you think Graham, in his infinite coachly wisdom, stood in front of those Pitt players and raged on and on about commitment and loyalty and sacrifice? How many times do you think he spat out the he-man, tough-guy football bromides about doing the right thing and playing through adversity and owning up to your mistakes like a man?

[+] EnlargeGraham
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesTodd Graham didn't even wave goodbye to his players at Pitt. He texted his farewells to them.

That's the great thing about these college football coaches. Every job is their dream job until it's time for the next job. And when that time comes, they have no problem sending out a text and falling into the arms of a new lover.

Graham says his dream job is Arizona State? Really? A school whose idea of history is Frank Kush and 105-degree game-time temperatures? Given the location, ASU should be a great place to recruit and win. But the school stood around for the past five years watching Dennis Erickson look befuddled every time one of his guys committed a personal foul. That's not a dream job; it's a superfund site with blocking sleds.

(Asked about his impression of Graham after the new coach's press conference, Arizona State defensive tackle Corey Adams said, "He's honest." Oh, to be young again.)

And that's why it seems more than a little unfair that Bradley seems destined to be denied his dream job. It takes a special kind of patience to wait for Joe Paterno to retire, but Bradley never seemed to tire of it. (In fact, "waiting for Paterno to retire" could be an alternate definition of patience.) He could have had more than a few head-coaching gigs along the way, including Pitt last year, but he hung around State College just long enough to ensure he'll never get the job he wanted and probably deserved.

It's a rough business. I'll leave you with this cute little story that came out of Saturday's Pennsylvania AAA state title game. Star running back Desmon Peoples, celebrating on the field with his Archbishop Wood teammates, came face to face with Urban Meyer. "Congratulations," Meyer said. "You still going to Rutgers?"

Such a heartwarming business.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

MORE COMMENTARY

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com