Say It Ain’t So, Joes

Joe Paterno and his biographer Joe Posnanski both come off badly in the insta-book Paterno.

 Joe Paterno
Joe Posnanski has written a biography of disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno

Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Joe Posnanski’s first book was The Soul of Baseball, the tale of a road trip with the charming, nonagenarian Negro League star Buck O’Neil. His second was a fun-loving romp with the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, baseball’s Big Red Machine. In March 2011, Posnanski announced to the devoted readers of his excellent blog that he would be writing a third. “This time around,” he said, “I really wanted to go for everything, I wanted to take on the project of my life, something that would get at how I feel about sports and life and competition and fairness and unfairness and the world around us.”

The subject: Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Posnanski didn’t hide his reverence for the gruff, diminutive coach in rolled-up khakis and oversized black glasses. He said in the blog post that he was a “huge fan and admirer of Joe’s”—he referenced the flattering stories he had written about the coach—and “endlessly fascinated by him and his lifelong quest to do something large, to impact America, through football.” In his proposal, Posnanski said the book would be “the most amazing football story ever told.” Simon & Schuster paid a reported $750,000 to publish it.

The then-Sports Illustrated writer moved to State College, Pa., to follow the eightysomething Paterno during what was likely to be the final season of a six-decade-long career, and what turned out to be the final months of his life. Posnanski was granted access to Paterno and his program, his family, and his personal papers. If the writer viewed the coach as one of the last heroic figures in sports, Paterno must have seen Posnanski as the rare reporter he could trust in a business he had long disdained. It was a good marriage: Posnanski liked writing positive stories about good people, and Paterno liked talking about the good he had accomplished.

I don’t think Posnanski is so naive that he would cling to a romantic ideal of a subject who turned out to more complicated than advertised—he might be the least cynical major sportswriter alive, but he isn’t stupid. And I don’t think Paterno or his family and friends were devious enough, or skilled enough, to orchestrate a campaign to manipulate the coach’s Boswell, before or after the horrific charges of child molestation against Paterno’s longtime defensive lieutenant, Jerry Sandusky. So why, then, does Paterno read like a one-source story, a writer’s attempt to prop up the Potemkin village of his subject’s life?

Paterno has been savaged by some reviewers, including JoePa’s hometown paper, mainly because Posnanski doesn’t seem to try to report or explain the Sandusky story beyond what he witnessed and was told by Paterno and his inner circle. Posnanski allows the coach’s associates to make a range of excuses for Paterno’s failure to more assertively pursue direct reports, including one from a young assistant coach, Mike McQueary, that Sandusky had showered with boys and engaged in an act of “a sexual nature” with one of them in Penn State’s football building in 1998 and 2001: He followed university guidelines, he was duped like everyone else, he was old and less in touch, he had other things on his mind. Posnanski reports this profoundly sad exchange between Paterno and his son Scott after the grand jury presentment against Sandusky was issued last November:

“Dad,” he asked his father again, “did you know anything about Sandusky?”

“Other than the thing Mike told me, no,” Joe answered.

“Nothing? No rumors? The coaches never talked about it?”

“No. I don’t listen to rumors. Nothing.”

“Dad, this is really important. If there is anything you heard …”

“I didn’t hear anything, why are you badgering me? What do I know about Jerry Sandusky? I’ve got Nebraska to think about, I can’t worry about this.” Nebraska was the next game.

For the sake of history, it’s good that Posnanski was admitted to the coach’s inner sanctum. What’s missing from Paterno, though, is a rigorous examination of the other side of the story. In one instance, Posnanski uses anonymous quotes to discredit a former Penn State administrator named Vicky Triponey, with whom Paterno clashed over player discipline. The author lets one embittered player call Triponey “that woman,” but makes no apparent effort to interview her. Of Paterno’s firing by Penn State’s board of trustees, Posnanski writes: “Why and how the board made its decision is not my story to tell.” 

That might be the most revealing line in Paterno. Posnanski signed up to write a book about a Great Man—a “plainspoken Brooklyn kid” driven by a mother who “hungered for success in every form,” who didn’t cheat in an industry full of cheaters, who turned down millions to coach in the pros, who translated Virgil and quoted Robert Browning, who built a library, who graduated his players and helped them become “doctors, lawyers, chemists, and teachers,” and who also won. It’s not that Posnanski ignores the coach’s many flaws: Paterno neglected his wife and children and berated his players; he was insular, stubborn, hubristic, grumpy, and autocratic. In fact, to Posnanski, those qualities make Paterno truer, even greater. In the pursuit of honor and glory, much is forgiven. 

But Posnanski sits firmly at his subject’s beloved kitchen table (“large and round, as if pulled from Camelot”). Paterno is larded with subtle digs and obfuscations, and claims that the coach wasn’t as powerful as everyone believed. The Sandusky case inhabits “that foggy world of memory and perspective.” Paterno once faced down a university president who tried to force him to retire (“You take care of your playground, and I’ll take care of mine,” he told Graham Spanier), but he couldn’t stop a baseball field from being built next to his stadium (though he tried mightily).

Posnanski has said he wrote “the most honest book” he could. But that doesn’t make Paterno the right book. Posnanski is determined to show the redemptive side of Paterno. That’s admirable, and fair; Paterno was more than the Sandusky case, and more than what happened in the few months before he died. But Posnanski then chooses to refract Paterno’s life through the prism of the case. “In those last weeks of his life,” “At the end of his life,” “Looking back,” “When I asked him at the end,” “Years later, as he lay in a hospital bed knowing the end was near”—introductory clauses like those remind the reader that the book is a post-Sandusky reckoning. Every anecdote about Paterno’s good character, every testimonial to his tough love (and there are dozens) feels like a calculated rebuttal to the accusations that he wasn’t aware enough or caring enough or vigilant enough when it mattered most—that he will be perceived forever by many as a hypocrite who said that football should be secondary to morality and ethics and a life well-lived but, at the moment that will define him, didn’t practice what he preached.

Regardless of what its dust jacket says, Paterno isn’t a biography in the tradition of David Maraniss’ exhaustive, intellectually hefty When Pride Still Mattered about another football coach, Vince Lombardi, or Richard Ben Cramer’s pointed, sprawling Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. It doesn’t attempt a critical assessment of a revered, dying figure, as Walter Isaacson does in his authorized Steve Jobs, and its subject isn’t capable of meaningful self-reexamination, like Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’s film The Fog of War. When Posnanski asks Paterno if he was driven because his father died young or his mother stressed achievement, the coach replies, “Yeah, sure, all of that.”

It may not be fair to hold against Posnanski that he didn’t attempt a substantive, reportorial narrative of Paterno’s life. A person involved in the publication of Paterno told me that Simon & Schuster did not consider delaying the book to allow the Sandusky furor to wane. Nor, this person said, did anyone suggest that Posnanski scrap his original Great Man approach and start over. Posnanski has been a newspaper columnist, a magazine writer, and a blogger; he’s an often beautiful writer but arguably Pollyannaish, not necessarily the attribute of a hard-hitting biographer. Despite the access and resources and, to me, the logic of the full-on bio approach, he may not have been willing or able to write that book, and in the year or two hence when it would have been published the market for it might have been nonexistent. “In the end, for me as a writer, the key factor was this: There are a lot of Joe Paterno quotes in this book, quotes nobody has heard, quotes now from the grave,” Posnanski told GQ. “I became convinced that those words would lose a lot of their power if we waited for more than a year after he died to publish them.”

Here’s another way of looking at it: Ignoring their marginal instant-news value, those quotations might have gained strength, and credibility, and even earned Paterno a little sympathy, over time. It’s impossible to know. But if presenting the “truth” of Paterno’s life was Posnanski’s goal, a straightforward biography might have been more effective than the persistent drumbeat in Paterno—Posnanski often violates the introductory journalism lesson to show rather than tell—that the coach was a better man than you now think, really he was. 

In one of the book’s most sportswriter-y passages, Posnanski recounts how Paterno’s impassioned recitation of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy inspired the Nittany Lions to end a six-game losing streak in 2004. (“On first down, Indiana’s Chris Taylor ran up the middle, but Penn State tackle Ed Johnson pushed through, grabbed him by the leg, and did not let go. To be, or not to be: that is the question. On second down …”) But Posnanski’s own impassioned book-long defense of the dead coach—and the repeated dismissal of his critics—recalls another line from the same play: The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Paterno fails not because Joe Posnanski can’t report or write, but because it tries too hard to accomplish something that might be accomplished only over decades, if ever.