Tom Bradley is Penn State’s coach-in-waiting. Or maybe he’s not.

Although he might like to, Joe Paterno can’t coach forever. And after 30 years of loyal service and excellent work, Bradley would seem to make an obvious heir apparent to the winningest coach in major college football history.

But if anyone knows the future of Penn State football they’re not saying.

“I don’t worry about that,” the Penn State defensive coordinator said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Everybody tries to make a big deal.

“Coach will probably go forever. I like what I do. Everybody says, ‘You have to be a head coach.’ I’ve had such a great experience, great things have happened. The people that I’ve met, I wouldn’t trade for the world.”

Bradley’s Penn State roots go back more than three decades. The Bishop McCort graduate went from special teams captain to graduate assistant in 1979 and has been in Happy Valley ever since.

Bradley grew up in Johnstown as the second oldest of seven kids (three boys and four girls). His father, Jim, played basketball for Pitt, but like many Irish Catholics the Bradleys’ football allegiances were to Notre Dame.

The Penn State connection started with his older brother, Jim, who played defensive back for Paterno from 1973-74. Tom played defensive back from ’77-78, and his younger brother, Matt, was a linebacker from 1979-81.

Tom, his brother, Jim, and sister, Patty, are all members of the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame.

Tom Bradley was the typical overachiever.

“He wasn’t quite big enough and didn’t have the speed to be a great player,” Paterno said. “He always had leadership qualities.”

The 52-year-old Bradley coaches the way he played, intense, hard-nosed, tough, all the clichés that perfectly fit for a guy nicknamed Scrap – as in scrap iron.

During games, he’s in constant motion. His arms are waving and wind-milling as he patrols the sideline. Right before the snap, Bradley sets up like a shortstop, legs spread wide and hands on knees, ready to spring.

“Oh yeah, that’s how he is all week,” Penn State safety Anthony Scirrotto said. “It builds up Monday through Saturday. He starts off calm, as the week gets on you can feel the tension, you feel it getting closer to kickoff, it builds up. He gets everyone excited, he’s a real big key in keeping everybody up-tempo and upbeat.”

He also gets results.

No. 3 Penn State (8-0) ranks eighth in the nation in total defense (263.2 yards), heading into its Big Ten showdown Saturday against No. 10 Ohio State.

Bradley’s been in charge of the defense since 2000, when longtime coordinator Jerry Sandusky retired. Sandusky was thought to be next in line to the throne at Penn State, too, but Paterno outlasted him.

Paterno is now less than two months away from his 82nd birthday and he gives no hints about when he’ll call it quits. There are, however, signs pointing toward sooner rather than later. He doesn’t have a contract for next season, though both he and university president Graham Spanier have said Paterno could work without one.

In his 43rd season as head coach, Paterno’s been relegated to working from the press box the last three games because of a sore right hip and leg. He uses a golf cart to get around practice and doesn’t come to the locker room at halftime to address the team.

With Paterno away from the sideline, Bradley has taken the lead role among the assistants, dealing with officials and penalties and calling timeouts. He also took the lead when Paterno missed time with a broken leg two years ago.

But Bradley is quick to make this point clear: Paterno is still in charge.

“He’s right there on the headset,” Bradley said. “The only difference is that when he’s on the field and he wants to get you, he’s right there. When he’s in the box and he’s yelling, you can always pretend you didn’t here what he said. ’Hey coach you’re breaking up.’

“But he is there. It would be better if he was on the field with us.”

Bradley describes Penn State as a family. His own family has gotten smaller. He lost his younger brother, mother and father during a span of about 20 months, starting in 2001. Matt Bradley was 43 when he died of heart failure.

“It was a rough time,” Bradley said.

He’s never married – he’s been dating a woman for about a year and a half – but brushes off the idea that he’s married to his job.

“I figure God has a plan for you,” he said. “Whenever it happens, it happens.”

He talks about how “blessed” he’s been, how lucky he is to work for Paterno.

“Never, ever in front of the players is he critical of you,” Bradley said. “(The assistant coaches) have a lot of autonomy with what we do.”

Bradley said he’s had chances to move on, even talked to Paterno about a couple of opportunities.

“I think you look and then you kind of have to follow your heart,” Bradley said, then quotes a psalm. “Search your own heart with all diligence for out of it flows the issues of your life.”

If Penn State were to pick Bradley as Paterno’s successor, it would be a hit with many in the Penn State family.

“No one knows the Penn State way better than Coach Bradley,” said former Nittany Lions linebacker Paul Posluszny, now with the Buffalo Bills.

Paterno has said he wants his replacement to come from within. And what coach would want to come to Penn State and replace the legend, anyway?

Still, while Bradley is the emotional leader of the Nittany Lions, he’s far more Xs and Os than CEO. There are others on staff who might better fit that mold, such as linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, who has head coaching experience.

Then there’s defensive line coach Larry Johnson, whose success recruiting the mid-Atlantic region helped Penn State rebound from three losing seasons from 2000-04.

Then again, maybe Paterno will outlast them all. Who knows?

“It’s not going to define me if I don’t get to be a head coach,” Bradley said. “Sometimes you’re in a pretty good situation.”

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