To even get into coaching, Bradley needed a push from his college coach. And to make a rapid rise to the NFL, he needed some serious coaching chops, a winning personality and a few fortunate circumstances to end up where he is today -- leading what should be one of the best defenses in football, and enjoying every moment of it.
Of course before he could become any sort of coach, Bradley had to get past his desire to please his father. With a brother and a brother-in-law already coaching high school football at the time, Bradley, a business major at North Dakota State preparing to start a career in athletic administration, was encouraged to go another direction with his career choice. But Bradley's college coach, Rocky Hager, came to Bradley before he graduated and asked if he had any interest in coaching.
"I think my dad was kind of trying to steer me away from (coaching) a little bit," Bradley said. "So I was probably trying to please him by not going into it. But it was just in my blood, and when I had that opportunity, I talked to him about it, I said, 'Dad, you've just got to trust me on this. I want to go for it.'"
Almost instantly, Bradley realized he was at home on the football field, and he hasn't stopped wondering how he got so lucky ever since.
"When I did it that first spring, I said, 'This is what I want to do. I can't believe it. This is like stealing,'" he said. "It's just that idea that I almost didn't end up doing this. It was that close. If (Hager) hadn't asked me to come on as a student coach, I wouldn't be in this position today. So I'm very grateful for this opportunity."
After a job at Fort Lewis College and a return to his alma mater, Bradley's rise from small college football to NFL coordinator was unusually fast. He was the defensive coordinator at NDSU when then Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin called looking for information on another Bison assistant, Willie Mac Garza. Eventually conversations about Garza turned into talk about defense, and Kiffin realized he was talking to an up-and-coming coach. Kiffin and Jon Gruden brought Bradley in for an interview and ended up hiring him as a quality control coach in 2006.
A year later, Bradley was the linebackers coach in Tampa Bay, and two years after that, Kiffin was recommending Bradley to Jim Mora as a candidate to be the Seahawks' defensive coordinator.
"He really is exceptional," Kiffin, now USC's defensive coordinator, said in a phone interview. "You could tell. He's not just a really, really smart coach; he's got a great personality. He connects with the players really well.
"He reminds me of (Steelers coach) Mike Tomlin. We hired Mike at 29-years-old out of the University of Cincinnati. It didn't take long to know that Mike was special, and I knew from Day 1 that Gus was special. He'll be a head coach in the NFL. He's got no panic. Some people do, it doesn't mean they're not really good coaches, but Gus, he's special. When he interviews, he'll knock your socks off. I'm not trying to pump him up, but I know what he is. He's put it on tape up there."
Bradley's defense indeed did put it on tape last season, improving throughout the season to finish the year ranked seventh in scoring defense and ninth in yards allowed. And considering how young that group was, and that 10 starters are returning, there is no reason to believe the Seahawks won't be even better on defense this year under the guidance of Bradley and Pete Carroll.
But for Bradley and Carroll to be leading this year's defense, things had to work out just right once again for Bradley. When Carroll was assembling his coaching staff after being hired in 2010, he received some unsolicited advice from Kiffin, a longtime friend and mentor.
Carroll would eventually end up turning over the coaching staff almost entirely, but before he could start searching for a defensive coordinator, Kiffin put in his two cents on that position.
"There's one right in the building," Kiffin told Carroll. "You don't have to look far."
Carroll didn't know Bradley at all, but Kiffin's endorsement was more than enough to make Carroll give the existing defensive coordinator a look. The two had a few conversations over the course of Carroll's first week in charge, and just as Kiffin predicted, Carroll and Bradley hit it off.
"I just took some time to get a feel for him," Carroll said. "We watched a lot of film and talked about a lot of issues, and as I got to know him, I loved him. There was no question he should be with us."
And while the Seahawks didn't instantly put a dominating product on the field, Bradley and Carroll eventually built an impressive defense while adjusting to each other's strengths. Carroll "created the vision," as Bradley put it, coming up with an unorthodox 4-3 scheme that uses an oversized, run-stuffing end (Red Bryant), two huge corners who can dominate in press coverage (Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner) and two of the league's best safeties (Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor). Bradley has been able to take Carroll's vision and run with it, using that upbeat personality to get through to his players.
"He's very vocal, energetic guy with this defense," Carroll said. "They know where he's coming from, he's very, very clear about the style of play and intensity and toughness and all that stuff. He's a very good teacher. He gets his point across."
And even if an always-grinning defensive coordinator isn't the usual, it is very effective. Rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner, like so many other players, has had plenty of coaches who scream and shout expletives. This style of coaching is much more enjoyable.
"He's always energetic, he's always positive," Wagner said. "That's something you need as a rookie, someone who's not just going to get on you every time you do something bad, but try to lift you up. That's why he gets the most out of the players."
Bradley's style goes over just as well with veterans as it does rookies. Because even if he is more interested in building players up than tearing them down, Bradley also know what he's talking about, which not only get results, but also earns the respect of players who have been around for a while.
"He motivates us well, and 95 percent of the time, he puts us in the right defenses, the right calls, so we just need to make the plays," said linebacker Leroy Hill. "We always have the information we need to be prepared. He brings a lot of enthusiasm. He's a real animated guy. He keeps it fun. He's the only one I ever had like that. ... He knows how to handle his business and also make it fun."
So yeah, Bradley has plenty to smile about. He easily could have never been a coach, and even after he made that choice, plenty had to go right for him to end up here, leading what should be a top-5 defense. And really, who wouldn't be smiling if his job was to lead a defense with this much talent and potential?
"It's hard not to be (positive)," Bradley said. "We've got great guys. How good of a football team are we? How good of a defense? We'll see. But I know they'll work hard and they're into it. To come to work every day with those type of guys, and no egos -- in the NFL -- it's unbelievable."
The Herald's John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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