A review of “Paterno” by Joe Posnanski.
You’ve read many reviews of “Paterno” by Joe Posnanski, so why read this one? I would be an arrogant turkey indeed if I were to think that anyone really cared about what I thought of the book. Probably, like many of you, I’ve run hot and cold on Joe Paterno through the years, the pace of the oscillations growing more rapid during the past 10 months. I found myself subscribing to many of the thoughts — or hatchet jobs, should I say? — of media writers and bloggists, as well as the opinions of my friends, many of whom were also vacillating about Joe. I’d never taken the time to think at length for myself about Joe, his principles, his high standards — which had been reduced to hypocrisy by the wonks who needed a living, breathing scapegoat upon whom to pin an alleged cover-up of the Jerry Sandusky crimes on campus.
Young and middle-aged sports writers who review a biography of an octogenarian are handicapped by the great gulf of goals and values between generations referred to colloquially as “The Greatest Generation” and “Generation X”. I, being of the much-maligned “Baby Boom Generation” — on the vanguard of it, yet — can better relate to the thoughts and feelings of an old man reflecting on his past successes and failures, as well as the crotchety moods, hanging on too long, and single-mindedness Paterno experienced in his later years. In no way am I comparing myself to Joe other than being a single generation removed from his.
Several reviewers seemed to want this book to be an expose of the entire Sandusky “cover-up” from the inside out. I’m happy they were disappointed. That was neither the original intent of the book, nor did Posnanski change course in mid-stream to incorporate a kangaroo court for Joe, which I presume those other writers wanted. There has been a certain blood lust in the wake of the scandal, with Paterno the target for the lynch mobs. I thought Posnanski did well to remain above the fray.
It is clear throughout the biography that Joe Paterno was not the “football above all” anti-hero the Freeh report wanted him to be. The following excerpt, beginning with a Paterno quote in the wake of Penn State’s first national championship season, 1982, says just the opposite.
“We have never been more united, more proud, and maybe it’s unfortunate that it takes a No. 1 football team to do that . . . . It bothers me to see Penn State football No. 1, then, a few weeks later, to pick up a newspaper and find a report that many of our academic departments are not rated up there with the leading institutions in the country.”
To Paterno, the way to make Penn State a great academic institution was obvious: they needed to recruit brilliant, aggressive, and vibrant teachers. “We have some,” he said. “We don’t have enough of them.” Then they needed to recruit the most promising and dazzling students, “the star students that star professors get excited about.” And the key was to raise money, more money, to endow chairs, to build science and computer labs, to fund scholarships, to build the nation’s best library. He was particularly passionate about the library: “Without a great library, we can’t be a great university.” Over the next twenty years, he and Sue would donate millions of dollars and raise millions more to build a world-class library that would be called the Paterno Library.
In challenging the board of trustees, and later challenging the faculty itself, Paterno was typically blunt. He praised some departments and called others lousy; he praised some professors and called others lazy. He said they needed to raise seven to ten million dollars over the next few months, while the opportunity was there. “I think we can be more than we are,” he insisted, “and make students better than they think they are.”
The vignettes of life in the Paterno home with Sue and the five Paterno children made for good contretemps, as well as comic relief. The one that sticks most in my mind was purported to be the seminal episode that caused Joe to impose a personal ban on swearing. A six-year old Jay was playing on the floor of the coach’s home office while Joe made recruiting calls. During one call, the recruiting target announced his plan to go elsewhere. Joe politely signed off saying the other school was a great institution and wishing the kid luck there. Then, he hung up and muttered, “Son of a bitch, I hope he hates it there!” After a subsequent recruiting call, Joe hung up without muttering. That was the six year-old Jay’s cue to exclaim, “Son of a bitch, I hope he hates it there!”
After that, Joe stopped cursing like a drunken sailor, using euphemoprofanity like “heck” and “darn”, “son of a gun” and “aw, fer cryin’ out loud!” Being a leader and a hero in many alumni eyes, he probably unintentionally caused many of his broad legions of fans to think twice about cursing.
As one would expect, Posnansky wrote much material about Paterno’s relationship with Jerry Sandusky, the two having coached side-by-side for 30 years. From the public’s point of view, they were working together; however, in reality it was nothing like that most of the time.
Paterno and Sandusky rarely agreed; they did not like each other. Paterno often fired Sandusky, and Sandusky often quit, and the two men clashed so violently in team meetings that other coaches expected a fight to break out.
Interestingly enough, Joe gave Sandusky the short shrift in his autobiography, mentioning him only once, “the same number of times he talked about Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.” He didn’t like Sandusky. The feeling was mutual.
Sandusky, meanwhile, offered reporters funny but biting quotes about Paterno, like the time he mocked Paterno for always griping that defensive players need to have their hands up when running after the quarterback: “What else would they do? Have their hands down?” Looking back, many of the stories published about Paterno, even the most glowing, contain a slightly caustic quote from Sandusky. After a while, whenever an anonymous source took a shot at Paterno, well, Paterno just assumed it was Sandusky.
Joe thought Sandusky was a bit of a flake, but they put their heads together to come up with a perfect defensive plan to win the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Miami for Penn State’s second Number One season. After that, Paterno felt that Sandusky had lost his coaching edge.
He grumbled to people that Sandusky was getting too full of himself. In Paterno’s mind, an earlier coach, Dan Radakovich, was the real coaching genius who made Penn State into “Linebacker U,” the ideal place for linebackers to play. He thought Sandusky was taking way too much credit. More to the point, Sandusky’s defense wasn’t stopping anybody. Even during the undefeated 1994 season, Paterno thought the defense was way too soft. The Nittany Lions gave up 21 points a game on average— too many, in Paterno’s book— and had gone undefeated only because the offense was so great. The defense was worse the next year. Paterno’s frustrations bubbled. He complained to friends that he did not know what to do about Sandusky. He began writing little notes to himself, things he wanted to say to Sandusky in meetings:
- Why is it you are the only one who, when a meeting starts, wants to know when it will end?
- Jerry, we ARE going to tighten up the ship.
- I knew I should have been worried when Jerry said Wisconsin got impatient running the ball against us. We have to stop people.
It was around that time that The Second Mile entered the picture, when Paterno felt that Sandusky was spending more time with his charity than he was with his coaching. Eventually, this would be the reason why Paterno would not recommend Sandusky to be his successor, and that is why Jerry left.
Posnanski wrote a chapter about Adam Taliaferro’s tragic injury and how Paterno reacted to it. As the 2000 season rolled around, Sandusky was gone and Joe felt a new energy. However 2000 turned out to be a bad year for Penn State and Paterno. First, in the off-season, Rashard Casey, the team QB, got into an off-campus fight with a police officer, and Joe backed him all the way, against the hoots and hollers of “hypocrite”. Although Casey was found not guilty, the season went downhill right from the start. Losses — including a real stinker 24-6 loss to Toledo — mounted, there was dissent among the coaching staff and worst of all, Adam Taliaferro had a paralyzing injury during the Ohio State loss about which doctors opined that he would never walk again. Joe was devastated, feeling that he had failed to protect Adam. But Joe being Joe, he played a major role in motivating Taliaferro through treatment and rehabilitation; he is now a walking, talking Philadelphia area lawyer who was also elected to the Penn State Board of Trustees by the alumni in 2012.
Against almost constant pressure from 2000 on, back in what many consider the “Dark Years” and beyond, Joe continued coaching. He didn’t know what he would do with himself if he retired. No one believed that he would ever quit; he would have to be hauled off the field with his boots on, having died on the field of combat. On the day in 2004 when president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and senior VP Gary Schultz famously joined Paterno at his breakfast table to ask him to consider retirement and give them a plan for smooth successorship, Joe’s temper flared:
Paterno recalled, Spanier cleared his throat and said that he was going to recommend to the board that 2005 be Paterno’s last year as coach.
At the end of his life, Paterno said, as if asking for forgiveness, “I have a temper. I shouldn’t have said what I said, but I was very angry. I had thought he came over to talk. But he already had made up his mind what he was going to do.”
Paterno 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.”
Spanier looked at him with surprise. Paterno went on. Before the meeting, he had written notes to himself that seem to be for use in case the argument got hot:
- I am NOT going to resign.
- I am 77, but not old, and the arena is where I thrive.
- Loyalty— Commitment to Education— more than wins + losses.
- I’ve raised millions of dollars at this very table for the University.
- Realizing that graduation rate, etc., are what Penn State athletics are all about.
- I can rally the alumni. People in the country. We are special. We are Penn State.
All this and other scribbles were written in pencil. In blue pen, at the bottom of the yellow graph paper, he wrote what appears to be his final bid: “If I fail (7– 4, 8– 4), I retire.”
Of course, we all remember that the 2005 record was 12-1 and Penn State finished the post-season ranked number three.
Many thought Paterno should have quit back then, while he was ahead, but he hung on. His relations with the press and the public became crotchety and bitter. His health declined. He had to coach many games from the press booth. Still, the stubborn old coot didn’t feel it was time to hang them up. “What am I going to do? Mow the lawn? Play with my grandchildren?”
It took more than a few bad seasons to pry the old coach out of there. It took a scandal.
The take-down of Paterno has been covered eight ways to Sunday elsewhere. Posnanski does a pretty straight reporting job, capturing the emotions of Sue, Scott, and Jay along the way. And sadly, Joe’s final hours found their way into a biography whose subject was to have been a man still living.
In the epilogue, entitled “Encore”, Diana Paterno, Joe’s daughter, had the following to say:
“Since he died,” said Diana, “I have thought a lot, ‘What would Dad do?’ I thought about his character, the whole thing, the board of trustees, the way it ended. People talk about revenge or getting back at people or whatever. That’s not what Dad would have wanted. He would have wanted the truth to come out. That’s all.”
Amen to that.
Did Posnanski succeed in covering his subject? I believe he did. He did not inject his personal opinions and biases into it, which is what I want from a biographer. I believe that someone who reads this book fifty years from now will be able to construct an accurate mental image of Joseph V. Paterno, and his complexities as the coach, the father, and the man. That’s what I want from a biography.