PATERNO. By Joe Posnanski, Simon & Schuster, 402 pages, $28
Some readers will be disappointed with “Paterno” because so many people are disgusted with the late Joe Paterno. Others still trumpet the lifetime achievements of a football coach lovingly known as “Joe Pa” and long held as the gold standard for integrity in college athletics.
Of course, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is the convicted child molester here (10 victims, 45 charges). But as USA Today columnist Christine Brennan said at a Penn State media panel last November, “Paterno was always the lead: What did he know and when did he know it.”
That author Joe Posnanski sheds little new light on The Questions raises questions: Why so sympathetic? Where’s the outrage? Should this biography project, initiated with Posnanski moving to State College before the scandal broke, have gone forward?
We are all entitled to our Penn State anger, more so for Lowcountry residents shocked by simultaneously unfolding molestation charges against Skip ReVille, an eventually convicted former Citadel cadet and summer camp counselor, who also was a coach and teacher. But this is a terrifically presented contribution to an American tragedy that transcends sports like few others.
The embedded Posnanski is not just any fly on the wall; the former Sports Illustrated (and Charlotte Observer and Augusta Chronicle) staffer is one of the best storytellers in modern journalism. He is a master at juggling heartbeats and tears, as around a kitchen table in the Paterno home. After family members finally persuade the octogenarian coach to read the presentment against Sandusky, Paterno turns to his son, Scott, and asks, “What is sodomy, anyway?” Posnanski captures the reaction of longtime Paterno friend and Penn State marketing man Guido D’Elia: “I thought my heart was going to break.”
Remember the original assignment: Paterno, complete with unprecedented access to an icon/recluse, including Paterno’s files, speeches and notes over the whole of his 1966-2011 Penn State head coaching tenure, and more. This is the Paterno side of the noble rise and sordid fall, and Posnanski wisely avoids extensive analysis of Sandusky or molestation. Instead, he artfully weaves triumph with tragedy, a tale that doesn’t quite end with Paterno dying before the book project is complete.
Of course, as much as the Sandusky story is about Paterno, all the “Paterno” stories — his Brooklyn boyhood, college life at Brown, the epic 1979 Sugar Bowl clash with Alabama’s Bear Bryant — are stained by the horror you know lies ahead. Posnanski hammers away in a “Sandusky” chapter about Paterno’s dislike for his longtime defensive coordinator, saying the men despised each other from the start. In a twist away from logic, Posnanski argues that Paterno didn’t fire Sandusky because Sandusky was nearly as popular with Penn State fans: “If a vote had been taken in 1997 to name the next Penn State coach, Sandusky probably would have won in a landslide. There were many who thought that change was long overdue.”
Just when you think all Happy Valley is disconnected with reality, along comes local police Commissioner Frank Noonan to the rescue with a refrain that also bites at The Citadel in the ReVille case (and at nonmandatory reporters in too many other cases). “Somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child,” Noonan said. “I think you have the moral responsibility, anyone. Not whether you’re a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.”
Ultimately, Posnanski is right there in Joe Paterno’s face.
“What do you think of all this?” Paterno, two weeks after his dismissal as head coach, asks the biographer.
“You are Joe Paterno,” Posnanski says he told the tarnished legend. “Right or wrong, people expect more from you.”
Paterno responded between coughing fits. “I wish I had done more,” he said.
Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is a sports columnist for The Post and Courier