I first approached Paterno, the much-anticipated biography of the late, legendary, and now disgraced coach of the Penn State football team, like many readers, I suspect. I sought out the stuff on Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator who, in June, was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys and will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison. For this, the book is quite helpful: right there, on page 247, is a chapter entitled “Sandusky.” And in these pages, author Joe Posnanski, formerly of Sports Illustrated and now senior writer for a soon-to-be launched website called Sports on Earth, sheds light on the relationship between the head coach and his once-popular assistant, a former pillar of the State College community.
“The two men,” Posnanski writes, “despised each other from the start.”
The chapter doesn’t definitively answer the question on everyone’s mind — how much did Joe Paterno really know about Sandusky’s crimes, and when exactly did he become aware of them? But it untangles a complex dynamic between the two crucial characters. Paterno and Sandusky would nearly fight on the sideline. Paterno thought Sandusky was a goofball. During Sandusky’s first season as a full-time assistant, in 1969, Paterno spotted Sandusky on a practice film, “running onto the field waving his arms like a bird and shouting: ‘The breakdown coach is on his way, the breakdown coach is on his way.’ It was ridiculous.”
Paterno lit into him. Towards the end of Sandusky’s Penn State coaching career, Paterno thought Sandusky loafed. Sandusky thought Paterno betrayed him: he told a friend that Paterno promised that he’d be the next Penn State head coach, then refused to retire. Paterno wasn’t the biggest fan of The Second Mile, the youth charity Sandusky founded. Sandusky was always bringing children around practices and the facilities, and, according to Posnanski, the “kids annoyed the hell” out of Paterno. To Paterno, they were just a distraction.
So why didn’t Paterno just fire Sandusky? “He felt loyalty to Sandusky for all his successes,” Posnanski writes. “He also understood the politics. Because of the team’s defensive success, his gregarious personality, and the Second Mile, Sandusky was almost as prominent in the Penn State community as he was.”
So Paterno clearly cared about appearances. Was that why he didn’t more aggressively report the abuse allegations against Sandusky to the police? Was that one reason why, the Freeh Report concludes, Paterno and other top Penn State officials, “in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity …. repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the university’s board of trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large?”
One of the book’s final chapters, “Fall,” adds more intrigue. Posnanski neatly narrates the swift collapse of Paterno’s coaching career. After the grand jury presentment against Sandusky went public on November 5, Paterno was still in denial. “I’ve got Nebraska to think about,” Paterno told his son, Scott, who was trying to pry information out of his father. “I can’t worry about this.” Penn State hosted Nebraska the following week (losing 17-14). “I had to do everything I could to not cry right then,” Scott said. Scott told his mother that her husband’s job was in grave jeopardy. “Scotty, that will kill him,” Sue Paterno said. Paterno died a few months later, on Jan. 22, of lung cancer. He was 85.
Still, these chapters can’t help but feel somewhat unsatisfying. The book has no bombshell confessions from Paterno, no documents that absolve him from blame. That’s not Posnanski’s fault: only Joe Paterno knows what was in his heart and mind, and he’s no longer here to offer further insight. Posnanski reports that after Paterno’s family forced him to read the horrific Sandusky grand jury presentment, and told him that people were saying he “had covered up for a child predator,” Paterno replied: “How could they think that? They really think that if I knew someone was hurting kids, I wouldn’t stop it? Don’t they know me? Don’t they know what my life has been about?” Paterno agreed that, in hindsight, he should have done more to stop Sandusky, but in reporting the accusations to his direct superiors at Penn State, rather than the police, Paterno thought he was acting appropriately.
As for the rest of the bio, the material not related to the Sandusky scandal and its fallout, covering the first 84 years, not the final couple of months, of Paterno’s life: I can’t speak to that part, because I haven’t read it yet. And I’m not sure I will any time soon.
That’s nothing against Posnanski, one of the best sportswriters in the country. It’s simply a timing issue. Posnanski started this project well before the scandal broke, and he in large part stuck to his original plans. “What follows is the story of Joe Paterno’s life,” he writes at the beginning of the book. But on the heels of the Freeh Report, which contained evidence that Paterno did know about the initial, 1998 allegation of Sandusky’s inappropriate behavior – he previously denied being aware of it – and that Paterno had more influence on Penn State’s handling of the allegations that he had previously let on, Paterno’s life story, familiar to most sports fans to begin with, doesn’t seem very germane.
That’s not to say Paterno’s rich life doesn’t deserve attention. Certainly, it does. But right now, the wounds – remember, the former director of the FBI concluded that Paterno put his own interests over children who were sexually abused – are too fresh. (In an interview with the New Yorker, published on Wednesday, former Penn State president Graham Spanier, whom the Freeh report also said “exhibited striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims,” said the report “is wrong, it’s unfair, it is deeply flawed, it has many errors and omissions.”) An illustration of Paterno’s impact, no matter how complex, or positive, it might have been, isn’t going to change Freeh’s verdict. Over time, as this case perhaps continues to twist, consuming a full account of Paterno’s life may feel more appropriate.
The market doesn’t seem to agree. Just a day after the August 21 release of Paterno, the book climbed to number 13 on Amazon’s best-seller list. People may be reading it cover to cover. Or maybe they’re just paying for the Sandusky stuff. Either way, the message is clear: whether people love him, hate him, or land somewhere in between, they care about Paterno. We’ll be grappling with his life, and legacy, for years.