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There's no fluff with Bob Bradley

June 9, 2010
Drehs By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com
(Archive)

Bob BradleyKevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesBob Bradley will lead the U.S. men's national team into the FIFA World Cup on Saturday.

PHILADELPHIA -- Bob Bradley leans forward on a cushy couch at a posh downtown hotel, his elbows on his knees, head resting on his closed fists. His mind races, his body sits still. He's been this way for almost 30 seconds since the question was asked, not saying a word, not saying a thing. Just sitting there.

It was a simple enough question, really. What don't you like about yourself? We all have things we don't like. Come up with something, spit it out and let's move on. But that's not Bob Bradley.

The man who will be pushing the buttons and pulling the strings when the U.S. men's national team takes the field for the 2010 World Cup on Saturday against England (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC) does not speak without thinking. Before any word comes out of his mouth it is internally scrutinized, analyzed and dissected.

Ask him something probing about himself and Bradley won't ramble that he is too competitive or intense. Instead, silence fills the room. Thirty seconds. A minute. Ninety seconds. Two minutes.

Finally.

"Growing up," he says, "things ... "

He stops. Twenty-eight more seconds go by.

"Umm," he continues. "Probably that I could ... "

He stops again.

He is this way with everything in life. Every movement, action, decision -- it is all scripted, all with a purpose. With Bradley, there is no fluff. His personality mirrors his chiseled face. There are no extra chins, no puffy cheeks. The veins bulging on the side of his temples carry blood to and from the brain. The piercing blue eyes recessed in his head slice through any and all incoming B.S. And every single neuron that fires does so with one purpose: To simply be the best. At everything.

He doesn't smoke, doesn't drink and doesn't put unhealthy food in his 52-year-old body. His handshake is firm, his stare ultra-serious. He refers to his brutally honest one-on-one meetings with players not as face-to-face but rather man-to-man. Intense, focused, driven. Yes. All of it. It's as if he graduated from West Point.

"He strikes people like a force of nature," says Princeton religion professor Jeffrey Stout, who met Bradley at the Ivy League school more than three decades ago. "There are other people who care about the truth, who are intense, who understand what it means to be a man and build a team. There are other people who care about their players and their families and the communities in which they live.

Bob Bradley
Stew Milne/US PresswireBob Bradley is serious and determined to focus his energy on this team.

"But I can't think of anybody who cares as relentlessly and passionately as he does. There just aren't many people like him."

Maybe that's why the U.S. coach struggles to describe something he doesn't like about himself. Seventeen more seconds have elapsed since the last attempt. This time, Bradley opens his mouth, begins to speak and doesn't stop. He talks about the way he responds when people cross him. In his black-and-white world, he says, it's very simple. They're done. So what doesn't he like about himself? The man who exudes excellence says he wishes he could be more forgiving of those who fall short.

"That's the main thing," he says. "I can be very tough. And there are times when if a guy can't quite handle it, there are times where I feel a bit bad about that. I don't like myself in those moments. I wish I had a better way sometimes. But that's the way it is."

The revelation is a rare insight into a man who seldom opens up to the outside world. He doesn't care what people think. He doesn't care if those on the outside know or understand what happens on the inside. There's a circle of trust. The inside, he protects. The outside, he rejects.

And telling his story does nothing to help his team's chances at the largest sporting event in the world. If anything, throwing the spotlight on his shiny dome potentially hurts the team-first mentality he's spent the past three years trying to build.

So yes, Bob Bradley should stop reading. He's not going to like this.

Intensely driven

In June 2009, on a bright, muggy morning in Central America, the U.S. team prepares for its World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. At the team hotel, some players go for a swim. Others take a nap or watch movies. But not the head coach. He's here, in the hotel gym, his shoes rhythmically pounding on a speeding treadmill with the drive of someone training for a marathon.

Push-ups, crunches and a series of Pilates exercises -- they are still to come. For now, Bob Bradley runs -- head up, shoulders level, eyes staring through the glass wall before him. The room fills with drive, determination. As the son of a man who earned a purple heart in Korea, that's all Bradley knows.

In college, friends say, he fought the common cold not by staying in bed or popping over-the-counter medicine but by working out. The morning after he was fired as manager of the MLS' New York Metro Stars (now Red Bulls) in 2006, he did the same -- first cleaning his office, then heading to the team gym to take out his frustration by pedaling on an Exercycle.

Bradley/Mulert
Courtesy Mark MulertBob Bradley and college roommate and teammate Mark Mulert at Princeton in 1979.

His sophomore year at Princeton, after suffering a gruesome compound fracture of his ankle, he ignored the fear that his career was over and returned the next season. He scored four goals in his first game.

"If the doctors told him to rehab for an hour, he'd do an hour and a half," says Mark Mulert, Bradley's college roommate and teammate. "If they told him to walk, he'd run. If they told him it would take six weeks until the cast came off, he would make sure it only took four.

"He's relentless. Once he decides he's going to do something, it's complete and utter over-the-top dedication. And he won't stop."

Back in 2006, when U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati announced Bradley would replace Bruce Arena, the winningest men's coach in U.S. soccer history, the decision was greeted with somewhat of a yawn. Everyone -- Gulati included -- had salivated over the possibility of Germany's Jurgen Klinsmann leading the Yanks. Not until those negotiations crumbled did Gulati name Bradley interim coach. And even then, he was viewed as nothing more than a stop gap until a headline-grabbing international name could be found.

Bradley responded by going undefeated in his first 11 matches, winning the 2007 Gold Cup and giving Gulati no choice but to ditch the interim tag. Last summer, the U.S. finished second at the Confederations Cup, the highest finish ever for a U.S. side in a major FIFA tournament. And they again qualified for the World Cup by finishing first in the CONCACAF region.

"When we're in camp together this appears like a 24-7 job for Bob," Landon Donovan says. "Aside from sleeping, he's working on what he needs to do to make us successful that week, that camp, that trip, that tournament, whatever. He cares a lot about what he does. And he cares about this team being successful."

Yet Bradley has more than his share of critics. They say he lacks passion. They see his stoic expression on the sideline and wonder if it is blood or motor oil running through his veins. They wonder why he always wears a U.S. soccer track suit and not business attire on the sideline. He has been criticized for everything from favoring his son Michael, who starts for the team, to not including enough Hispanics on the roster. Both are somewhat laughable. Bradley is "an absolute staple" of the squad, according to Donovan, and both Jose Francisco Torres and Hercules Gomez are potential starters in South Africa.

But the stories that would help people understand Bradley, the tales that would peel back the layers and give insight into who this man is and why he does what he does are the same stories he doesn't want told.

In fact, ask any of the current members of the U.S. men's national team to share a funny story or personal anecdote about their head coach and they will all give you the same answer. "I should probably check with Bob first."

"He cares about winning games and he cares about his players. That's it," says Nick DiBenedetto, who worked with Bradley as the public relations director for the MLS Chicago Fire and the Metro Stars. "There's no style points. As long as his team scores one more goal than the other team, that's what he cares about. Not winning a popularity contest."

Born for this

To understand how Bradley got here, to the most important soccer coaching job in the country, you have to understand where he came from.

Part of the answer lies in Montclair, N.J., and the playgrounds of Essex Falls Elementary School, where he and his two younger brothers spent their childhood listening for the cowbell that meant it was time to come home. Part of the answer lies at Princeton, where Bradley played baseball and soccer, graduated with honors and spent 11 years as head coach. And part of the answer lies in coaching stints at Ohio University and the University of Virginia as well as MLS jobs with D.C. United, the Fire, Metro Stars and Chivas USA.

But to understand why Bradley became the man who will lead the United States onto the field Saturday, you have to go back to the ice rinks of northern New Jersey where, in 1967, a 9-year-old boy first revealed he was a bit different than his peers.

All three Bradley boys were athletic. Jeff now writes for ESPN The Magazine. Scott was the star who eventually spent nine years as a major league catcher. On the ice, Scott was the best skater, the best shooter and the one who could make the crowd go "Oooooooh."

But big brother Bob was the one who scored goals.

"Every game I'd have five or six breakaways and I'd be lucky if I scored once," Scott says. "And he would find himself in the right spot four different times and have a hat trick. It drove me crazy. I remember wondering, 'How the hell is he scoring all these goals?'

"But looking back, that was the beginning of his ability to analyze games and slow things down in his mind. He was very aware that there were things more important than being 100 percent the best athlete. And he wasn't even 10 years old."

Even then, Bob Bradley knew that what took place from the neck up was often as important as the skills from the neck down. He used that understanding on the baseball field, where the four-year high school letterman tinkered with his batting stance more than Cal Ripken Jr. And on the tennis courts, where he would watch Bjorn Borg on television, then replicate Borg's stroke on the courts across the street. It carried over to the golf course, where a lethal pitching wedge still helps Bradley shoot in the mid-80s despite playing only a few rounds a year.

"While the rest of us are hitting some half shot that we're not good enough to hit," Scott says, "he's hitting a 5-wood off the tee because he wants to be at 120 yards. He's literally counting back on every hole so he can take out his pitching wedge and, from 120 yards nine times out of 10, put it next to the hole."

And of course it carried over to the soccer field, where Bradley led the Tigers in scoring his senior year by perfecting the art of being in the right place at the right time.

After graduating from Princeton, Bradley took a coveted position in Procter & Gamble's executive training program. Each morning, he would take his company car, a Ford Fairmont, fill it with charts, spreadsheets and Duncan Hines cookie mix and visit area grocery stores peddling product.

He hated it. Still living at home, he would lie in bed at night and confess his frustrations to Scott, with whom he shared a room.

"He was miserable. We would sit there and he would tell me over and over, 'This is God awful. This is God awful. I have to figure out what I'm going to do with my life,'" Scott said.

Bradley entered the training program because he had loans to pay and parents to please. But after that opportunity faded and frustration built, he enrolled in the sports administration program at Ohio University. As it happened, the Bobcats needed a soccer coach. At 22, Bradley took control of a Division I program.

"There are some guys who go to Princeton and they know what they want to do," Bradley says. "Law school, the financial sector, whatever. But in some cases, there are those of us who graduate and feel like, 'OK, where am I going?' But it's only when you get out of there that you start to come to grips with what's next. And that's when you find your answer."

Bradley's team-building

Spend enough time with Bradley and inevitably, at some point, he'll sell himself short. He'll make fun of his receding hairline and his aging body. He'll tell you how he wasn't a talented athlete. Or he isn't that smart -- especially not for a man from the Ivy League.

Stout, the religion professor who has taught at Princeton for 25 years and just earned the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, says he considers Bradley one of the smartest people he's ever met at the institution. And one of its best teachers.

"And I don't know how often that can be said about a member of a coaching staff," Stout said. "This is Princeton. This place is full of brilliant people. But Bob is near the top."

The reasons go beyond grades, test scores or Bradley's impressive memory. ("He could tell you every goal scored for or against us for all four years of college," former roommate Mulert says.) Instead, it's Bradley's ability to accurately read people -- as well as their thoughts, needs, wants and desires -- in a frighteningly short period of time. And then his ability to apply that knowledge to help people reach their ultimate potential.

"It's pretty simple," says Jimmy Barlow, who played for Bradley at Princeton and now coaches the Tigers as well as the U.S. under-15 team. "He knows what you're thinking, what you're feeling before you even do. He will say things, and you just go, 'Oh yeah, you're right.'"

Bradleys
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesBob Bradley has faced some criticism that his son, Michael, plays for the U.S. national team.

Bradley communicates to his players through brutal honesty. Maybe it's putting his arm around Jozy Altidore after a training session and explaining he needs more from the team's starting forward. Or confronting Clint Dempsey during the early rounds of the Confederations Cup and demanding answers about the midfielder's erratic play. Or talking to Donovan on the flight home from Honduras after qualifying last October and explaining to Donovan that yes, the regulars would, in fact, be playing in the final qualifying match against Costa Rica. Even though the Americans were already in the World Cup, there was still work to be done, goals to achieve. Like winning the CONCACAF group.

"He's a realist," says DaMarcus Beasley, who has known Bradley since he was 16. "As a player, you know exactly what he wants. He's straightforward. He doesn't beat around the bush. And because of that, he gets the absolute best out of his players."

Bradley's style is influenced by a little bit of seemingly every great coach. In 1980, he and his college roommates sneaked in to the Olympic hockey center to watch Herb Brooks coach the U.S. team to a 5-1 victory against Norway. As a soccer assistant at Virginia, he could overhear the conversations in the visiting basketball team's locker room, giving him a unique chance to learn the styles of coaches such as Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Lefty Driesell and Mike Krzyzewski. At Virginia, he was surrounded by coaches such as Geno Auriemma, Dave Odom, Seth Greenberg and Tom O'Brien.

He's read coaching books by Sir Alex Ferguson and Vince Lombardi. Before the team gathered for its pre-World Cup training camp, he visited with Krzyzewski. And when it came time to ask someone to speak to the team before it left for South Africa, he chose a man whose career defined greatness, Bill Russell.

"The essence of this whole thing is trying to become a good team," Bradley says. "And becoming a good team is hard work. That's the reason most teams don't become good. It requires the ability to have tough conversations, real communication. It requires an honest sense of roles and the ability for a team to come together, grow and see what's important."

The foundation of Bradley's team-first, me-last coaching philosophies was hatched in the front seat of a Volkswagen Rabbit with his mentor, former national team coach and current Seton Hall coach Manny Schellscheidt. The two still talk regularly, and even now their discussions are more about the philosophy and psychology of coaching than X's and O's. Their favorite phrase is "Who gets it?" And they judge players not on goals, assists and effective tackles, but rather how they respond after losing the ball.

"Bob is able to sort out who he can count on," Schellscheidt says. "Does somebody really want it bad enough? And if they do, are they perfectly willing to make themselves better? A lot of guys pretend they love the game but when push comes to shove they didn't mean it so much. Bob makes sure they mean it.

"Look, chemistry matters. And if you're a nation that isn't rich on talent -- and we're not quite there yet -- that's the only way to compensate."

The future

No matter what you think about Bradley, it doesn't matter. Whether he's a genius or a robot, whether his heady approach will help or hurt the psyche of the U.S. team is, at this point, irrelevant.

Fifty-two years of preparation for the biggest moment in Bradley's career will come down to the next four weeks. One Oguchi Onyewu slip on the grass, one missed penalty kick by Donovan, one mistake that leads to a 35-foot Algerian laser past Tim Howard and all that Ivy League-driven planning and team-building won't mean a thing. If the U.S. doesn't advance out of its group, Bradley will have failed.

Don't feel bad. He knows this. That's why his fingerprint is on every single thing his team will touch in South Africa.

"He's done everything he can," captain Carlos Bocanegra says. "There won't be a team that is more prepared than we are in the entire tournament."

Ask the people close to Bradley what might be next for the man who likes proving the world wrong and the answer shouldn't surprise you. There are those who believe that when this World Cup stint is over, he might just head to Europe, with the goal of becoming the first American coach to succeed on the continent where soccer is king.

"I would not rule that out," Schellscheidt says. "And knowing Bob, I guarantee he'd be successful. He doesn't know any other way."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.

Bob BradleyPierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty ImagesWhat will the future hold for Bob Bradley? A coaching job in Europe, perhaps? But first, the 2010 World Cup.