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

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

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Reuters

"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."

barra_paternocover_post.jpgSimon & Schuster

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?

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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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