'Paterno': A Relentless, Failed Defense of Penn State's Disgraced Coach

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In his new biography, sportswriter Joe Posnanski gives several excuses for Paterno, but none of them works.

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"This book," writes Joe Posnanski in the introduction to his already controversial biography, Paterno, "is not a defense of Paterno." Yes, it is, and relentlessly.

Last year, Posnanski—a former Sports Illustrated writer who now contributes to a soon-to-be-launched website called Sports on Earth—was given a substantial contract by publisher Simon & Schuster to move to the Penn State campus and write a full-length biography of Paterno. At the time, Paterno was the beloved man who'd won more games than any other college football coach in history. The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal and Paterno's sudden death, of course, forced the author to change the tone and focus of the book, and the result, Paterno—the title is as generic as Penn State's uniforms—seems to have been rushed out before interest in Paterno died out altogether. (His statue outside the University's football stadium has already been removed.)

As a biography, Paterno is spotty at best. Some of the writing is flaccid and marred by bad poetry. (Sample: "Paterno's honesty came from a real place: from the Brooklyn streets.") Much of this story is familiar from long magazine articles, TV documentaries, and books even before the scandal broke. For instance, Paterno himself revealed that he had disappointed his father by choosing a career in football over the study of law in his 1991 autobiography, By The Book. That Paterno feared retirement after his friend Paul "Bear" Bryant died within a month of stepping down as Alabama's coach, was first suggested in Frank Fitzpatrick's 2005 book, The Lion in Autumn.

One problem is that Posnanski does not know college football, or at least he doesn't know much about it before this century. His book is littered with statements about the game that simply are not true. Writing about Penn State's unbeaten 1969 team he writes of "how little respect the so-called experts had for eastern football."

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I don't know what he means by "so-called experts." The AP poll was voted on by the nation's leading sportswriters, and the UPI voters were the coaches, football professionals who were Paterno's peers. Studying the numbers for the 1969 season, it seems to me that if anything, Penn State was overrated with a cheesecloth schedule. (Penn State's opponents that year won just 49 of 93 games). This wasn't necessarily Paterno's fault; he was bound to play relative weaklings by both regional affiliations and tradition—such as Navy, Army, Maryland, Boston College, and Pittsburgh—and schedules were usually set years in advance.

No one really doubted the toughness of Paterno's teams, but people in other parts of the country thought, and rightly so, that Penn State was a giant among pygmies. There wasn't, for the first several years of Paterno's coaching career, a single first rate football power in the Northeast besides Penn State, and he did not face tough competition until he began to schedule regular season games with other national powerhouses such as Alabama, Notre Dame, and Nebraska.

More baffling is Posnanski's assertion that by the 1973 season Paterno "would be the most famous and admired coach in America." Admired, of course, is a subjective judgment, but no matter how you define famous, I can't begin to see how, by that time, Joe Paterno's fame approached that of Alabama's Bear Bryant, Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian, Ohio State's Woody Hayes, Southern Cal's John McKay, Texas's Darrell Royal, or Nebraska's Bob Devaney, all of whom had won at least two national titles by 1973. A charitable assessment is that by 1973 Paterno might have been one of the ten most famous coaches in America.

***

About two-thirds of the way through Paterno, the Sandusky scandal enters Paterno's life as though through a side door, and then of course, for the last 100 or so pages, becomes the story.

It's not enough to say that Posnanski does not do well relating the facts of the Sandusky case and Paterno's role in it. The truth is that he doesn't really try. "Joe Paterno was fired," he tells us at the end, "why and how the board [Penn State trustees] made its decision is not my story to tell." If not Paterno's biographer's, one wonders, then whose story is it? And what is so complicated about that story? The answer to "how" the board made its decision is quickly and nearly unanimously. The answer to "why" is that Paterno, as revealed in his own testimony to a grand jury and through numerous emails that have been revealed since investigations began, had full reason to suspect Sandusky's monstrous crimes against children and did nothing to stop him.

This is the crux of the matter. Time and again, Posnanski writes as if it was his intention to make clear issues cloudy. One example: In the months after Paterno died, "some evidence surfaced that he made been told something about the 1998 incident"—the first time rumors of Sandusky depravities surfaced—"though what he was told remained unclear." But surely Paterno was told enough to make him understand that the allegations should be investigated by proper authorities.

And: Scott Paterno, Joe's son "came away convinced that the only thing Joe knew about Sandusky's alleged crimes ... was the vague conversation he had with Mike McQueary." McQueary is the former Penn State quarterback and Penn State assistant who went to Paterno in 2002 after seeing Sandusky forcing sex on a young boy in the football team's showers. Even if it is true, as the Paterno family still insists, that McQueary was not clear when telling the coach what he saw—though it strains credibility to think Paterno knew nothing of the 1998 rumors—how could Paterno have not understood what McQueary was describing?

Posnanski admits that Paterno concluded that what McQueary told him "was of a sexual nature." Then what else, one wants to scream, did Paterno need to know about whether or not the authorities needed to be called in? If, God forbid, McQueary had been describing something that had been done to a member of Paterno's family, would he have been satisfied simply to contact Penn State's athletic director, put him in touch with McQueary, and walk away?

Excuses for Paterno's behavior are littered throughout the text.

Here's one we could call the old-age plea. From "One of the people in Paterno's inner circle," quoted by Posnanski anonymously on why Paterno did not make sure the incident was reported to the police: "To be honest, that's just not how Joe was in the last years. He was not vigilant like he used to be. I think a younger Joe would have said to Tim after a few days 'Hey what's going on with that Sandusky thing? You guys get to the bottom of that? Let's make sure that's taken care of ...' He just wasn't involved as he used to be." In preventing the sexual abuse of boys?

The integrity plea: "We begged Joe to just say publicly what he knew. He wouldn't do it. He wouldn't throw Tim [Curley, the athletic director] or anybody else under the bus." But he was willing to look the other way when there was a very real possibility of children getting thrown under the bus?

And then, the most popular cop-out of all, the naiveté defense. In a printed response that the Paterno family read to the media as his part in the scandal became known, Joe said,

I understand that a lot of people are upset and angry, but let's be fair and let the legal process unfold. In the meantime, I would ask all Penn Staters to trust in what that name represents, continue to pursue their lives every day with high ideals and not let these events shake their belief in who they are ... We were all fooled along with scores of professionals trained in such things .... and we grieve for the victims and their families.

It takes a moment to sift through this sanctimonious double talk before realizing that letting "the legal process unfold" was exactly what Joe Paterno did not do. These events did not shake Penn Staters' beliefs in who they are, they shook their beliefs in who Joe Paterno was.

As for Paterno claiming "we were all fooled," what else could he be admitting except that he understood what McQueary told him and had taken it upon himself to decide that Sandusky couldn't be guilty of such a thing?

Then, finally, there is the "by the book" defense. When testifying before the grand jury, as related in the book, Paterno was asked what he thought McQueary saw. "I don't know," he replied. "I thought he saw them horsing around. Maybe he thought he saw some fondling. I don't know about any of this stuff. But I could tell it made Mike very upset." When asked if he considered calling the police, Paterno replied, "To be honest with you, I didn't. This isn't my field ... I tried to look through the Penn State guidelines to see what I was supposed to do. It said I was supposed to call Tim [Curley]. So I called him." In the most important test of moral courage in Joe Paterno's life, he was satisfied that he had done the right thing because that's what the rule book said.

***

Near the end of Paterno, as Posnanski tells it, author and subject are sitting alone at a table (we assume in Paterno's home) a couple of week after Joe had been fired. Paterno asks Posnanski, "So, what do you think of all this?"

I told him that it was crazy, but that was not what he was asking.

"What do you think of all this?" he asked me again.

I had not intended to include this in the book. It was a personal moment between writer and subject, but as the story has played out, I decided it was important. I told him that I thought he should have done more when he was told about Jerry Sandusky showering with a boy. I had heard what he had said about not understanding the severity, not knowing much about child molestation, not having Sandusky as an employee. But, I said, "You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you."

He nodded. He did not try to defend or deflect. He simply said, "I wish I had done more," again .

Something about this passage simply does not ring true, beginning with Paterno feeling the need to have Posnanski's opinion of his actions. And why would Posnanski not want to include this passage in his book? As a journalist would he not have instinctively understood that "a personal moment between writer and subject" is exactly what this book is supposed to be about?

Posnanski decides that it was important to include the exchange in his book, but it really isn't. Instead of asking any questions he might have asked about Paterno's motivation, he sets him up with a softball lob, "You are Joe Paterno ..." It seems like a setup to allow Paterno to come back with "I wish I had done more." And what did Paterno mean by "more"? Did he ever feel he should have called the authorities himself or demanded that Curley, or perhaps even the university president, Graham Spanier, notify the police? Or at least thoroughly investigate what McQueary had seen, especially since it was the second time Sandusky was implicated in sexual abuse of children? If Paterno had two opportunities to stop Jerry Sandusky, then what are we supposed to make of his confession that he should have done more?

At no time in the last few months of his life did Joe Paterno seem to understand that, after all, he was the boss—he had been the boss for nearly four decades—and that the buck stopped with him. The entire "I wish I had done more" passage reads as if it was written to absolve Paterno of his failure for not having acted and to also relieve Posnanski of any responsibility for not having asked the tough questions he should have asked.

***

For readers capable of assessing the facts without the spin that Posnanski tries to put on them, a disturbing portrait of Paterno—at least the Paterno of his later years—emerges in Paterno.

Early in 2005, president Spanier, vice-president Gary Schultz, and former PSU football player and chairman of the board of trustees Steve Garban went to Paterno's home to discuss who would be his replacement as head football coach at the end of the season. Paterno, either not understanding or pretending not to understand, launched into a pep talk about how great the Nittany Lions were going to be that season. (He was right—they finished 11-1.) When Paterno finished, Spanier cleared this throat and told Paterno of his intention to recommend to the board that 2005 be Joe's last season as coach. Paterno, age 77, "put both hands on the table, looked Graham Spanier in the eye and growled. 'You take care of your playground, and I'll take care of mine.'" Not only did Paterno face down his president, he boasted about it to friends and colleagues over the next several months. If Posnanski disapproved of Paterno's actions in this case, he doesn't indicate it. Nor does he seem to understand any more than Paterno did that Paterno's bullying of Spanier was a repudiation of all the ideals the coach was supposed to have cherished and lived by all his life.

Earlier in the book, Paterno recalls a moment when he forgot an important dictum taught to him by his football mentor at Penn State, Rip Engle. "I wanted to be one of the great ones. I wanted to be as big as Lombardi, as big as Bear, as big as Woody Hayes or Bobby Dodd. I had forgotten Rip's lesson: It's not our team, it's their team." On reflection, "I kept thinking of it as my team. But it wasn't my team. That's not a bad title for your book," he tells Posnanski. "It Was Never My Team."

Whether or not Paterno felt that way early in his career, there's little doubt that by the end, he regarded the team—the entire football program—not as the university's, not as the players', but as his. You take care of your playground, and I'll take care of mine.

There's an even more disturbing confrontation with a school administrator a couple of years later involving Vicky Triponey, then Vice President for Student Affairs. Triponey, like many at Penn State, was filled with growing concern over the lack of control Paterno appeared to be exercising over the football program. In 2008, ESPN's Outside The Lines published investigation that revealed that between 2002 and 2008, 46 Penn State players amassed 163 criminal charges. Ultimately, 27 were found guilty on 45 charges. (You'll have to look up these numbers for yourself on ESPN.com as Posnanski only mentions that 46 were charged.)

Paterno, according to Posnanski "called the whole thing a witch hunt and later said that the report and others like it reflected something sad about society." It certainly did: It reflected that some powerful coaches are willing to look the other way on almost anything and that university officials who ought to know better are willing to abrogate so long as the coach continues to win.

In 2007 there was a fight involving 15 players and some other students at a party; two of the men wound up in the hospital. ("But," as Posnanski is quick to remind us, they were "immediately released, so there were no long-lasting injuries.") Three players were charged.

Triponey believed that as the players were students—this, after all, was what Paterno had always insisted—they were subject to discipline by the Judicial Affairs office. Paterno, on the other hand, "believed that Judicial Affairs, and Triponey in particular, had no business in getting involved in something already being handled by the police." He believed even more strongly that Triponey would not give his players a fair hearing.

Paterno announced that every member of the football team, including those who weren't part of the fight, would perform ten hours of community service and spend two hours cleaning up the football stadium on Sundays. While the players were satisfying their Paterno sentence, Triponey resigned in frustration. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal in November 2011, when revelations about Sandusky were dominating the news, Triponey released several emails from the period which revealed that Paterno was indeed meddling in student affairs and seeking preferential treatment for his players.

In a disgraceful bit of deflecting responsibility away from Paterno, Posnanski tries to taint Triponey's reputation: "One close friend of Paterno wondered, 'Don't reporters know how to use Google?' If they had, they would have found that Triponey's time at Penn State was not without controversy, including well-publicized clashes with the student government, the campus radio station, and fraternities." Too bad reporters can't Google the name of the anonymous close friend who said this and failed to mention that dealing with controversy is precisely what Triponey's job was all about.

Posnanski closes out his chapter by quoting a player: 'If it was up to that woman"—Triponey—"they would have thrown me out of school and let me rot. That's how she was. ... But now I'm a father, and I have a child, and I have a good job. I owe that to Joe Paterno. He wasn't perfect, but he believed in me. When nobody else did, he believed in me." Unfortunately, the player, like the Paterno friend who suggested Googling Triponey, is unnamed by Posnanski.

***

Either due to haste or sloppy editing, Paterno ends without Posnanski having answered his own big question. "Why didn't he follow up?" Guido D'Elia, a Paterno friend and former assistant, tells Posnanski rhetorically. "Find the answer to that and you'll have the story." Posnanski never tries to answer the question, but I'm going to take a crack at it based on what I read in Paterno.

Joe Paterno did as little as he could about Sandusky while remaining within the strict letters of the law. He did not do more because he knew a firestorm of bad publicity would descend on his beloved football program. He may have personally despised Jerry Sandusky, but he also knew that Sandusky's brilliance as a defensive coordinator had been largely responsible for winning the two biggest games in Penn State history: the containment of Georgia's great running back Herschel Walker in the 1982 Sugar Bowl and the shutting down of Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, the two games which gave Paterno his two national titles. Paterno knew that if Sandusky went down, it would take a piece of his reputation as well.

Posnanski tells us time and again that "Joe knew that football is not the most important thing." And yet in nearly every important decision of Paterno's life, from choosing not to follow his father's wishes and study law to refusing to surrender discipline of his student-athletes to the university to protecting the reputation of his program over the safety and well-being of young boys, Joe Paterno chose football.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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