When Dave Wannstedt was hired at Pittsburgh, he famously boasted that he was going to build "a brick wall" around the fertile recruiting grounds of the Western Pennsylvania. Well, now it looks like that wall finally came all the way down when Wannstedt was fired Tuesday afternoon as coach of the Panthers.
For many Penn State fans, the occasion will likely be greeted with some combination of chuckles, giggles and Schadenfreude, yes, because whether they'll admit it or not, most all Penn State fans enjoy seeing Pitt football flounder. Unfortunately, this moment may be the tipping point of something very real for their own team.
When Pitt was going through its last coaching search following the 2004 season after the Pitt brass fired Walt Harris, Penn State was at its absolute low point. The Nittany Lions had just finished a 4-7 campaign, their fourth losing season in five years. Simply put, stock in Joe Paterno himself was not very high at the time, let alone any of his assistants.
Fast forward to December 2010. Penn State has appeared in six straight bowl games and won two conference titles since. A lot of credit has gone to defensive coordinator Tom Bradley for helping turn things around, not only on the field, but in recruiting by stealing many recruits from Pitt's reach even behind its vaunted wall. Many believed he'd succeed Joe Paterno as Penn State's head coach one day.
However, after a 7-5 season that saw the Penn State defense take hit after hit, Bradley no longer appears to be the heir apparant to Joe Paterno as he once was. Attention has been turned elsewhere to names like Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Temple's Al Golen.
Now, that's not to say Bradley isn't still a very strong candidate for the Penn State job. However, given his presence and popularity in the Pittsburgh area, even among Pitt fans, it's hard not to speculate that he might be one of the leading candidates for the Pitt job. And if Bradley feels like he'll get passed over for the Penn State job, well, he's never going to get a better opportunity than this.
Bradley knows western Pennsylvania. He's been the lead recruiter for the Nittany Lions in the area for an eternity. He has countless connections with coaches, players and parents in the area. This isn't a far flung destination that could be offering him a job, it's smack in the middle of his wheel house.
While Scrap has remained loyal to Joe Paterno for a long time, passing up a number of jobs to stay with the legend, this might be one he can't refuse. And if Bradley leaves, Penn State is could be in deep, deep trouble.
As has been well documented, Paterno leaves most of the coaching to his assistants these days. Bradley reigns above them all. If he defects, who's not to say Larry Johnson Sr. or Mike McQuery, or any other assistants that have been crucial to Penn State's success won't start leaving, too?
Yours truly has long been behind Paterno's right to stay as long as he wants to, but this is a game changer. Paterno has proven he can manage the staff currently in place, but if parts of it begin jumping ship, I think most agree Paterno doesn't stand much of a chance against Big Ten competition any more. Without Tom Bradley, he'd inevitably have to take on a bigger role, and at 84 later this month, he's probably not willing to do that, nor will the athletic department be eager to let him try.
Just to be clear, there's no indication yet that a Bradley departure is imminent, but don't be surprised if the wheels start turning quickly. If makes too much sense on too many levels to not be acknowledged as a distinct possibility. Either way, today's decision in Pittsburgh will reverberate in Happy Valley in the coming weeks, and both the Pitt and Penn State programs might be reshaped completely when the dust settles.
UPDATE: Given the backlash this post seems to be generating, it bears repeating that all of the above scenarios are predicated on Bradley believing he'll get passed over for the Penn State job. There's no indication that that's the case right now, and apologies to anyone who read it that way.
If he believes someone else is getting the job, though, and he stays here, they need to rename the stadium after him or something. Pitt isn't the perfect job for Bradley. Penn State is. But Pitt might be as good as he can hope for otherwise given his own personal history in the area. Passing that opportunity up, if presented to him, for a fleeting chance at the Penn State job would be an act of loyalty perhaps even greater than when Paterno passed on the New England Patriots to stay at Penn State.