Gus Bradley has fond memories of recruiting trips to Bismarck.
Those were the early years of a coaching career that began as an assistant at his alma mater, North Dakota State University, and has since risen to the top of the football world.
The humble and down-to-earth Bradley, former head coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, and currently the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Chargers, remembered meeting with coaches who continue to patrol high school sidelines today.
“It was so much fun sitting at St. Mary’s talking with Dan Smrekar. Then going to Century and talking with Ron Wingenbach. And at Bismarck High I remember having a great time visiting with (former BHS basketball coach) Steve Miller. And Mark Gibson does a terrific job there,” Bradley said. “Boy, going to Bismarck was a great stop … and we got some really good football players out of there, too.”
Bradley will be back in Bismarck this week as the keynote speaker at Marauders Fest, the University of Mary’s main fundraiser for athletic scholarships. The three-day event begins on Thursday at Lumen Vitae University Center with a banquet. The social starts at 5:30 p.m., followed by a dinner at 6:30. Bradley will speak following the meal. Silent and live auctions also will be held. Cost is $50 for an individual or $500 for a table of eight.
On top of his many connections to the area, Bradley also has a tie to the University of Mary. His brother-in-law, Dave Marion, works in the development office.
“When Dave and I talked about it, schedule-wise the timing was perfect. I was really excited about the opportunity,” Bradley said. “There are so many good people there. I’m really looking forward to coming back.”
Bradley, a safety on NDSU’s 1988 national championship team, began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at NDSU. From there, the Zumbrota, Minn., native went to Fort Lewis College (Colo.) for four years before returning to Fargo for a 10-year stint as a Bison assistant. In 2006, he got a call from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, forcing a decision that was not easy to make.
“I was at a place you can envision being at for a long time, and a great place to raise a family,” he said. “My wife (Michaela) and I really had to think that through because that’s a decision that can change a lot of things and not all of it is good. In the NFL, you can get into a situation where you end up moving every couple of years, you just don’t know.”
Things ended up working out quite well for Bradley, of course, who after three successful years with the Bucs, was hired as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Then in 2013, Bradley earned the top job with the Jaguars.
“When you look back over the past 30 years, the one thing we’ve been so fortunate with is being around so many good people,” Bradley said. “Going back to Fort Lewis College, and at NDSU and with the NFL teams I’ve been with, those are the things you appreciate the most. The great friendships and the relationships you develop. We’ve been very blessed with the people we’ve been able to meet and work with.”
Bradley’s tenure in Jacksonville ended late in the 2017 season, but he was not out of work long.
“We all know what we’re signing up for. It’s part of the business and we all understand that, but when one situation ends you kind of sit back and think, ‘Do I take a year off? Do I get back in? What’s best for my family?’ All those things factor into it,” Bradley said. “What was really appealing about being with the Chargers is that (head coach) Anthony Lynn and I had a previous relationship. I had actually interviewed him for a job earlier in our careers.
“Knowing the kind of person Anthony is, and the coaching staff he was able to put together, really made this a great situation.”
Bradley made an immediate impact with the Chargers. In his first season, L.A. went from 24th in scoring defense to No. 3 in the NFL. Bradley, not surprisingly, deflected credit.
“Well, I can tell you when you have a couple of guys like Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram rushing the passer and guys like Casey Hayward on the outside, they make a coach look pretty good,” he said. “What makes it even more enjoyable is the type of people these guys are. Both in terms of the coaching staff and the players, we just have a group of really good guys.
“Sometimes, people see these big strong athletes and think they have these huge egos and all of that. There might be a little of that, but not much. What I’ve been able to witness are just a lot of really good people. Guys that contribute to their communities; have charities; donate time and money. There are a lot of really special people in the NFL, who just happen to be great football players.”
One of the players Bradley game-planned for last season was his fellow former Bison, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. Philly won their Week 4 matchup 26-24, but from there the Chargers finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the league, going 9-3 in their last 12 games.
Bradley’s Jaguars staff coached the South team in the 2016 Senior Bowl, the same year Wentz was a quarterback for the North squad. During that week, Bradley said he and the Century High grad were able to connect away from the field.
“We all see how great of a player he is, but you also hear how good of a person he is and I can say from my time with him that absolutely is the case,” Bradley said. “He stands for all the right things and is a great representative of North Dakota.”
Bradley looks forward to talking with area football fans in Bismarck this week, including with another familiar face. Current U-Mary athletic director Dale Lennon was leading UND to great success as head coach while Bradley was an assistant for the Bison.
“Any place that is fortunate enough to have coach Lennon is destined for success. That was a great get for Mary,” Bradley said. “When I was at NDSU I always admired how he ran his program. He’s a person of tremendous integrity, but also is extremely competitive.
“Wherever Dale is, success is going to come. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”