Paterno: A Review Of The Book… and The Man

Joe Paterno Statue RemovalI am not a college football fan.  I never have been, although heaven knows I’ve tried for the sake of others who live-and-die by it every fall Saturday.  The only thing I really like about college football is the marching bands.  The NFL needs more marching bands.

Prior to 2011, if you had told me that Joe Paterno was the head coach at Notre Dame I would have nodded sheepishly.  I had no idea, despite having relatives who went to Penn State and still live in State College, Pennsylvania.  Likewise, if the Jerry Sandusky/PSU scandal hadn’t happened, there isn’t a snowball’s chance I’d have ever read the new biography Paterno, by Joe Posnanski.  (As noted in previous blogs, I am a big fan of Posnanski’s blogging, though.)

Of course, the scandal did happen, and so I read the book.  I’d like to say it was illuminating, and that it made sense of the madness.  I’d like to tell you that it clearly established Joe Paterno’s innocence, or culpability.  Unfortunately, it did none of that.

Posnanski had already decided to write his biography of ‘Joe Pa’ long before the allegations of former defensive coordinator Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children surfaced.  By that point, he’d already spent nearly a year in State College, with unprecedented access to Paterno, his family and colleagues, and more than five decades of hand scribbled notes about football, and life.  I think it’s safe to say, if Sandusky’s criminal acts had not been discovered, the book would have been a glowing, reverential account of Paterno’s life.

But in early 2011, the scandal broke.  In November of that year, Sandusky was indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys.  Paterno was vilified, fired, and diagnosed with terminal cancer all in short order.  On January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno died.  To no one’s surprise, these events sped up the launch of Posnanski’s book by nearly one year.

And so the first thing I noticed about Paterno was, it felt rushed.  Most biographers linger over the details of their subjects’ early years.  They interview friends and teachers to help readers understand what makes their subjects tick.  Posnanski covers little of Paterno’s upbringing in Brooklyn, aside from the fact that his parents were driven and demanding and expected great things from their son.  They wanted him to be a lawyer.  His father (who as sparingly described, seemed to be a kind, principled man) thought Joe could be president.

His military service is presented primarily through overly cheerful letters home that revealed next-to-nothing, and his college years at Brown University are covered in just a handful of pages.   At the point Paterno joins the coaching staff at PSU, he’s still pretty much an enigma.

The rest of the book lays out his football successes and failures chronologically, with occasional references to the future when (dah-DUM) everything would go terribly wrong.  Those interjections felt like teases. Sort of, “If you are reading this book to find out what Joe Pa knew about Sandusky’s shenanigans, stay tuned.”

Paterno didn’t meet my expectations, but I’m glad I read it.  For someone who knew nothing of Joe Paterno before he – and PSU – became infamous, it provides clues to how such heinous acts could have been committed, right under the nose of the architect of the “Grand Experiment”.  And the weird thing is, it’s not really complicated.

Joe Paterno was a smart guy, who liked to think of himself as intellectual because he read the classics sometimes.  But he wasn’t an intellectual.  He was utterly two-dimensional.  He cared about football.  (So did school administrators, and the Board of Directors by the way.)  He wasn’t focused on wealth or pedigree, but you can bet he cared deeply about winning, success and achievement.  His life was football, and everything – EVERYTHING – else took a backseat including his family, his friends (of which he had precious few), his health… and in the end, I believe, the welfare of vulnerable children.

Do I think Joe Paterno was aware that Jerry Sandusky had victimized children on the PSU campus?  Absolutely.  He later admitted that when then-graduate assistant Mike McCreary reported seeing Sandusky and a boy in the locker room showers, he knew “something sexual” was probably going on.  But as Posnanski hammers home throughout the book, Paterno did not believe in distractions of any kind.  Football was The Thing.  He did what was required of him; he reported the incident… and then he returned his focus to coaching, and preserving his job in the face of growing demands that he retire.

Posnanski makes much of Joe Paterno’s dedication to the intellectual growth of young men in his care.  Many players are quoted, looking back wistfully at all that Joe Pa taught them.  He fought like hell to instill important life lessons, and give players the tools for an adult life of prosperity, fulfillment and public service.

This was all great, commendable stuff.  But Joe Pa loved a winner, especially a diamond in the rough.  He reveled in telling stories about the raw talents he helped hone and buff, who succeeded on the field… and later in business, or law.  (Was it coincidental that Paterno’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer or politician, and that he seemed to hand-pick players to push very aggressively toward law school, followed by political office?)

Posnanski suggests that Paterno snubbed Jerry Sandusky’s Second Mile charity because he and Sandusky had a strained relationship.  In fact, they openly disliked one another.  Apparently, the at-risk kids Sandusky brought on the PSU campus drove Paterno nuts.   I think Joe Pa had no time for these kids because they were damaged, well beyond anything he’d encounter when recruiting high school football prodigies.  These kids probably showed little athletic prowess, and had no interest in discussing the classics.

After reading Paterno, I can’t help but suspect that if Sandusky’s shower victim had been a poor-but-motivated Pop Warner standout – a modern-day Horatio Alger character in cleats – Joe Paterno would not only have reported the suspected crime, he would have followed up, and pressed, bullied and badgered… like only Joe Pa could.

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