SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Tom Bradley wasn't exactly talking about himself, but he may well have been.
When the question, "How much longer do you see Joe Paterno coaching?" is posed to the longtime Penn State assistant, the subtext generally is, "How much longer are you willing to wait to possibly succeed him?"
Bradley, the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator, and several of his players met with reporters yesterday as Penn State prepared to face Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl tomorrow at 8 p.m.
But with rumors floating about Bradley's being interviewed for the vacant West Virginia coaching job, the conversation did not center on the Aggies. For the record, Bradley said he had not spoken to anyone associated with the Mountaineers' job search.
"It was just a rumor - a lot of people calling, a lot of innuendos were made," Bradley said. "I'm flattered that my name's mentioned with such an outstanding university."
But the former Lions player has long been associated with an elite football program. For 33 seasons - four as a player and 29 as an assistant coach - Bradley has called Penn State home. And for at least a decade, his name has been prominent in discussions over who will follow Paterno when the 81-year-old icon calls it quits.
So, how much longer can he coach?
"He says he's going to keep going as long as he can coach, and that's a good thing for us," Bradley said. "What's another five or 10 years?"
For Bradley, another five years mean he would be 56 if he stayed and succeeded Paterno. Ten more years put Bradley at 61.
Paterno said recently that he would like an in-house successor. Whether that is Bradley or his son, quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, or any of the other assistants is unknown. Most likely, the call won't be Paterno's but Penn State president Graham Spanier's.
Senior linebacker Dan Connor described Bradley as "a players' coach."
"I think that's what you need in a head coach," Connor said. "He would be an unbelievable recruiter, a great X's and O's guy. He's the whole package. I could definitely see him as being the coach at Penn State or who knows where."
But the clock is ticking, and it's not as if it hasn't run out on other Lions assistants. Jerry Sandusky and Fran Ganter coached under Paterno for more than 30 years, but were outlasted by the man many years their senior.
Each turned down opportunities elsewhere. Sandusky lasted 32 years before retiring as the defensive coordinator in 1999. Ganter, then the offensive coordinator, passed on the Michigan State job in 1995. Eight years later, he stepped away from the field after 33 seasons to take an athletic department administrative position.
Bradley has said before that he has been contacted by other schools over the years for various positions, although he never named names. Published reports had him as a candidate for the Temple and Illinois openings in 2005.
But he has remained loyal in the age of the coaching carousel.
"I don't want just to go anywhere to be a head coach," Bradley said. "You obviously try to find the right place, and if it comes, it comes. And if it doesn't, I have a heck of a good job that I'm happy with."
Likewise, Paterno has been loyal. When Bradley was handed the defense in 2000, it coincided with the worst wins-and-losses span for the program, even if Bradley's units were solid.
With Paterno's contract up after next season, it will be interesting to see whether Spanier formulates an extension that includes a clause for a named successor. Florida State did that earlier this month when coach Bobby Bowden was given a one-year contract that rolls over every year until he decides to retire. At that point, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher would be handed the reins.
"They're totally different situations," Bradley said.
If Bradley were to replace Paterno, different isn't necessarily how you would describe the two coaches.
"They've got similar qualities," Connor said. "I'd have to see [Bradley] in action as a coach, but they're both no-nonsense guys and blue-collar, tough guys. And that reflects on the team."
Bradley didn't get the nickname "Scrap" without reason. But his intensity isn't as consistent as Paterno's. Bradley will loosen up around his players now and then.
"Scrap's got a good sense of humor," junior linebacker Sean Lee said. "He can joke around. I don't know if he can as a head coach."
Even if he isn't a head coach yet, Bradley can impersonate one. According to Lee, he does the best Paterno imitation.
Bradley chose not to reveal his Rich Little abilities.
"I like my job too much," he said. "I'm not going there."