Tom Bradley ready to make the calls

It was late and dark by the time Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley left his office following the Nittany Lions' Oct. 29 win over Illinois, and as he walked past the Bryce Jordan Center, he noticed a 20-something man sitting in a wheelchair at the top of the hill.

Bradley said hello, walked halfway down the hill and then backtracked.

It turned out the young man had broken his glasses, was lost and couldn't get in touch with his family. Bradley wanted to help, but it took some convincing.

"He wasn't sure who I was," Bradley said. "I said, 'It's OK; I'm Tom Bradley.' He said, 'No you're not.' I said, 'Here, look at my game plan.'"

Not everyone knows or recognizes Penn State's first new head coach in 46 seasons -- Bradley wears wire-rimmed glasses, not Coke-bottle glasses -- but following the abrupt firing of Joe Paterno on Wednesday night and the dismissal of the university president, everyone in and around that program now is blindly searching for someone to lead them. Bradley, a former player who is in his 33rd season with Penn State, has been chosen by university officials to lead the program through indisputably its darkest period in school history.

It's no secret Bradley has wanted this job for years.

Just not like this.

At 9:50 p.m. ET Wednesday, Bradley was sitting in his office, watching cut-ups of Nebraska and comparing them to his game plan when his phone rang. It was interim school president Rodney Erickson, asking whether he would take over the program on an interim basis.

Around 11 p.m., Bradley called Paterno at home, a conversation only the two of them will be privy to. Bradley said the most difficult part of the transition for him has been the seesaw of emotions between the loyalty he has to Paterno and the responsibility he now faces to the 8-1 team and the university.

Somehow, some way, Penn State must put aside a scandal that has engrossed and enraged the nation and line up against No. 19 Nebraska on Saturday in what will be the seniors' final home game in Beaver Stadium.

"We have a responsibility still," Bradley said. "Because it's such an unprecedented situation we find ourselves in, we grieve for those victims and their families, and we suffer with all Penn Staters. The whole week has been a very difficult time for us, but we have to put aside our thoughts and get ready and play this Saturday. It's the seniors' last [home] game. They weren't a part of this; they came here for the right reasons. They came here to be a part of something. We owe it to them, too, to do the best job you can possibly do."

Former Penn State receiver Terry Smith, who is the stepfather of former cornerback Justin King, said Bradley is the right man to do it and that the 12-year defensive coordinator doesn't need to be an expert on the offensive side of the ball to be the Nittany Lions' head coach.

"The foundation of Penn State has always been play good on defense and be a little conservative on offense, and that's his forte," said Smith, who played at PSU in 1987-91 and has regular contact with Bradley as the coach at Gateway High in Monroeville, Pa.

"The one thing about Tom is he's well organized," Smith said. "He's a players' coach. He has a great personality. He's always had a great defense. I think he's going to do a really good job. For all that's going on, he's the best person to fill these shoes."

He won't do it alone, though.

Bradley has relied on the leadership of four players: defensive tackle Devon Still, safety Drew Astorino, receiver Derek Moye and left tackle Quinn Barham. Bradley called them all and traded text messages with them Wednesday night, and as everyone shared their concerns, the players helped Bradley spread the word about what had happened. It wasn't much longer after that, and Bradley's humble office in Lasch Football Building was packed with players from both the offense and the defense. At 7:30 a.m. Thursday, he met with the staff, and at 8 a.m. he met with the entire team for the first time as interim head coach.

Bradley said he told his assistants they have a job to do, and everyone has to put aside their egos and do what's in the best interest of the players. He told his players they have a responsibility to each other, that it's their team and that he's here to help them -- just as he always has been.

"I'm not changing at all," he said. "One thing I'm going to be is myself. I can't be anybody else. The players know me for who I am and what I am and the way I act, and I'm not going to change that. It's not like all of a sudden I'm a different person because somebody says, 'Hey, we want you to head up the team.' I'm worried that if I try to be something I'm not, they're going to see right through it. If I don't get down to that weight room and lift and goof around with them like I normally do, they're going to wonder what's wrong with me."

Bradley is intent on adhering to Penn State's game day traditions this weekend, so much so that he will continue to take the first seat on the left side of the second bus, the defensive bus. Paterno used to take the front seat of the offensive bus alongside the starting quarterback, but on Saturday that seat will be vacant for the first time in 46 years.

"I will not take the front seat," Bradley said.

If Bradley doesn't change, Penn State's defense shouldn't either. It has been the highlight of the program this season, ranking No. 3 in the country in scoring defense (12.44 points per game), No. 7 in pass defense and No. 8 in total defense. Bradley was in his 12th season as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator, and from 2004 to 2009, Penn State finished in the top 15 in total and scoring defense. Since 2004, Penn State has held 53 of its 88 opponents to 17 points or fewer, including 10 teams in 2009.

Bradley knows, though, that the offense now needs his equal attention.

"That's one thing: I've got make sure I try to get around to everybody," he said. "I spend most of my time with the defensive guys, and I've got to really spend a little bit more time with the other guys."

Bradley said he and the staff will decide together whether Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden will start at quarterback against Nebraska. One thing he won't do is meddle with the offensive playbook.

"This Saturday there's not going to be anything different," he said. "We are who we are right now."

And Bradley is who he is -- a defensive coach.

"You can't go over there and in one day think you're going to change," he said. "You have an offense you use, and the guys who coach it will continue to coach it. I'm not going to stick my nose into that. It's not right."

Those who know Bradley closely know he revealed a rare serious side when he addressed the media for the first time as interim head coach Thursday morning. It was a no-nonsense news conference, and Bradley took a somber, business-like approach to the media's relentless questions about the allegations of child sex abuse against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Under normal circumstances, Bradley is known across the state as an outgoing, funny assistant involved in charity work and is one of the nation's top recruiters. Lavar Arrington, Shane Conlan and Paul Posluszny are among the players he brought to State College. There is a bobblehead in his likeness, and assistant high school coaches all over western Pennsylvania consider him a friend. His brother, Jimmy, is the orthopedic surgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Bradley is such a local in the Pittsburgh area that he won the people's choice award to fill rival Pitt's recent opening. Bradley interviewed for the job but didn't get it.

"He's a very popular guy in the Pittsburgh area," said Buzz Scott, a recently retired high school coach at Peters Township High School. "When he did not get the Pitt job, people were very, very surprised -- and I'm talking about Panthers. They really thought that he was a great fit here. I've known him 30 years now. I sure hope they keep him."

Nothing, though, is guaranteed, especially considering high-ranking officials above Bradley have lost their jobs. The coaching staff's future and that of the entire program remain uncertain.

However, Bradley has suffered even greater emotional firestorms in the past. From 2001 to 2004, Bradley buried three of his closest family members, a personal devastation that overlapped with a 3-9 season in 2003.

Bradley found his younger brother, Matt, dead in his apartment from an aneurysm on April 11, 2003. He was 43 years old. Their father had died Oct. 2, 2001, and their mother died Feb. 3, 2004.

"The one guy who was there for me was Joe Paterno," he said. "The first guy to talk to me after my dad died, the first guy to be in the church, first guy to talk to me in every situation."

Now it's Bradley who Penn State will turn to first.

Heather Dinich is the ACC college football blogger for ESPN.com.