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.

Freeh Ends Paterno’s End Run

Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno
Spanier and Paterno, Better Days.

Publication of the 267-page Freeh Report on Penn State University’s actions related to sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky dominated the news today.  Let me tell you, it is a fascinating, disturbing read.

The media has already dissected the report – which is based on 3.5 million emails and other documents and 430 interviews of current and former university officials, including trustees – left, front and sideways, so I can’t say my observations are earthshattering but… here they are:

The Heartlessness Of the Matter: The report hammers home that University President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary Schultz, Head Football Coach Joe Paterno and Athletic Director Tim Curley never demonstrated, “through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.”   Their concern was ensuring that — if assaults happened – they happened somewhere OTHER THAN on the Penn State Campus.

They never spoke to Sandusky about the 1998 assault of an 11-year-old boy in the Lasch Building showers, which was reported to the University Police Department by the boy’s mother.  Likewise, they failed to ask about the welfare of Victim 2 from 2001, whose assault was witnessed and reported by Assistant Coach Mike McQueary.  When McQuery told Joe Paterno what he saw between Sandusky and the boy in the showers, Paterno waited several days to alert Curley and Schultz so as not to interfere with their weekends.

What’s more, according to his attorney Sandusky offered to provide the name of Victim 2 to Curley for questioning, but Curley said he didn’t want it.

What Jerry Knew: For more than a dozen years the “leadership” at Penn State looked the other way while Jerry Sandusky did as he pleased.  Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley were all aware of accusations against him – but Sandusky knew the PSU culture, and recognized that he had immunity.  He was untouchable.

In the face of the 1998 allegations, when interviewed by police and a Public Welfare case worker, Sandusky explained that he hugged the boy in the shower but that it wasn’t sexual.  He was cautioned against showering with boys in the future, and agreed to stop doing so.  It should have surprised no one that, over the next four years, Sandusky assaulted at least four more boys — often in those same showers.

Shortly AFTER the 1998 incident, Sandusky announced his intention to retire but requested a position running a youth camp so that he could continue to work with young people “through Penn State”.  That didn’t happen, but I suspect it was only because he was rehired for one year to assist Paterno.

Gary Schultz Is a Liar: And not a very smart one considering the evidence Louis Freeh was able to uncover about his activities related to Sandusky.  Although he testified before a grand jury in 2011 that he never knew details of the 1998 allegations, his personal emails and handwritten notes prove otherwise.  In a memo at that time, he expressed concern that Sandusky’s behavior might at best be “inappropriate” and at worst be sexually improper.  He questioned if there could be “other children”.

After interviewing Sandusky, University Police Chief Harmon reassured Schultz via email that he could “justify” not pursuing charges due to lack of clear evidence of a crime.  Justify?  An interesting word choice.

Later, after no charges were filed Schultz wrote an email to Curley and Spainer:  “I think the matter has been appropriately investigated and I hope it is now behind us.”

In a Nutshell: A great analogy in the report sums up the Penn State football culture perfectly.  In 1997 – just one year before allegations of sexual abuse first surfaced – Spanier declared a sports agent “persona non grata” on campus for buying $400 worth of clothing for a Penn State football player.  Spanier said the agent “fooled around with the integrity of the University, and I won’t stand for that.”

Um, O.K.