Review of Joe Posnanski’s ‘Paterno’

This article was prepared by Jeffrey W Simons a 1996 graduate of the Pennsylvania State University.

Joe Posnanski’s reflection on Joe Paterno’s life in the biography Paterno accomplishes a rare feat for non-fiction: it is extremely well researched and well written, engaging and informative, and will please none of its readers. The Paterno haters will despise the fact that it is NOT a 373 page indictment of Joe Paterno, the devil that was created in November 2011 by some of the real villains of this tragedy. No grand conspiracy of silence is revealed, no cover up, no evidence a great coach and teacher willfully put the souls of young children on the back burner for the greater glory of football.

Nor will the millions of alumni and adoring fans be pleased by reliving the 2 months of hell the Board of Trustees laid at Paterno’s feet as he was dying of cancer. Ultimately, Posnanski perfectly captures the tough but moral landscape in which Paterno was raised, and the 2 driving forces of his life that served as both virtues and deep flaws: Joe’s need to live up to his parents’ expectations (and his constant doubt he was doing so); and his unwavering belief in the goodness and potential of those around him. It was this latter trait, coupled with his sense of fair play and due process, which ultimately created a tragic blind spot when it came to the cunning child predator in his midst, Jerry Sandusky.

Posnanski’s book is cast as an opera, with chapter titles such as “Overture” and “Aria”. Indeed, Paterno’s life seemed destined for irrefutable greatness, and his downfall was so quick and so far that one might imagine it playing out like a Greek tragedy. Posnanski even cites Arthurian imagery in his opening pages:

“The table in Joe and Sue Paterno’s kitchen was large and round, as if pulled from Camelot.” – p. 5

It was in fact the second table built by Sue Pohland Paterno’s father, August Pohland, and it served for decades as a focal recruiting spot for the “knights” Joe would bring to the Penn State football program. Throughout many tales from former players and friends (including Paterno’s trusted sidekick Guido D’Elia), we learn how Joe assembled his teams, one recruit or player at a time. And though he could be demanding beyond the point of thoughtfulness, Paterno’s former players all shared the same evaluation of their coach: a leader whose lessons they often did not appreciate until many years later when the demands of the world found them less challenged than when they played for Penn State.

Paterno grew up in Brooklyn, where his father (Angelo) had such a strong sense of justice and fairness, he founded the Interfaith Movement, which sought racial and social equality. His mother (Florence) was a constant driving force towards perfection, and it was from her Joe derived one of his more famous quotes: “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.”
After a brief stint in the Army, Paterno attended Brown University. Though he and his younger brother George excelled at football, another tale emerged from this time that would exemplify Paterno’s strong moral code. When a fraternity brother had anonymously voted to blackball a Jewish pledge, Paterno stepped forward during a meeting of the brothers and falsely admitted HE had voted to blackball the pledge, and wished to withdraw his vote. He felt the person who had initially done so was a bigot and a coward, and by stepping forward Paterno knew he would not be challenged, and the Jewish pledge could then be accepted.

Angelo was a successful attorney, and had wanted Joe to follow in his footsteps, but Joe’s coach at Brown – Rip Engle – implored Joe to become his assistant football coach at a “cow college” in Central Pennsylvania. Paterno took the position to pay off some debts, and put his legal aspirations on hold. They stayed on hold for the rest of his life. This would be a driving force for Paterno . . . the feeling that Angelo may feel he was not living up to his potential as a great litigator. But Angelo expressed no disappointment; that would all be in Joe’s head for his entire career. What his father told him instead was: “Make an impact.”
For 16 years Joe served as a dutiful assistant under Engle, leaving no time for a social life. Posnanski writes:

“To players of the day, Assistant Coach Paterno seemed to be ever present. He was there when they went to class and there when they walked out. He was there when they ate, when they joked around, when they went on dates.” – p. 60

For those who cling to the narrative that Joe Paterno was “all powerful” in State College, an interesting event after the 1956 season is one of the first to defy that notion. Engle and his entire staff were recruited to coach at USC. Everyone voted to stay in State College except Paterno. Ironically, the disappointment he felt that day faded quickly, and he began to enjoy the quiet community.

Paterno met Suzanne Pohland in 1959, and while their romance bloomed, so did his success as an assistant coach. There were offers from the Baltimore Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Boston College, and most enticing was an offer by Yale in 1962 to be their head coach. But his relationship with Sue and his affection for State College made him stay:

“I’d just as soon stay here the rest of my life” – p. 69

Paterno was made head coach in 1966, and immediately set about making an impact. Throughout his entire career he approached adversity as a challenge to test his mettle both on and off the field. Posnanski relates tale after tale of players who butted heads with the obstinate and headstrong Paterno, only to find later in life Joe’s heart and drive were in the right place. He pushed athletes beyond their limits (one story relates US Marine Corps Drill Instructors commenting on a harsh Paterno practice, that they would never get away with what Paterno forced his players to endure), but he always put education first. Thus was born “The Grand Experiment” . . . that Paterno would recruit young men who were students first, athletes last.

His methods were often taxing and brutal, as he berated players during practices and games:
“For forty-six years, Paterno called them the same names when he was angry (boobs, fatheads, con artists, hot shots, hot dogs, goofballs, knuckleheads) and offered the same guarded praise when he was pleased (‘Do it like that on Saturday!’ ‘That wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen’) – p. 183

But he was not just building winning football teams; he was building winning men who would live their lives after football with intelligence, honor, and dignity. His teams won 2 National Championships, had consecutive undefeated seasons in 1968 and 1969, went undefeated in 1973 and 1994 . . . but it was always the success of the players OFF the field which built the reputation of Penn State Football. The greatest source of pride for Paterno was the high graduation rates, with no gap between white and black players as with many other schools.

Even some of Paterno’s fiercest critics later in life had been great admirers of his program. Rick Reilly said before the 1987 Fiesta Bowl:

“Over the last three decades, nobody has stayed truer to the game and at the same time truer to himself than Joseph Vincent Paterno” – p. 215

When defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky retired after the 1999 Alamo Bowl, many wondered when Paterno would follow suit. (Interesting to note in a chapter about Sandusky’s retirement, Posnanski opens with this simple sentence: “The two men despised each other from the start.” – p. 246).

Paterno kept a clipping from A.E. Hotchner’s book about Ernest Hemingway, who described “retirement” as “the filthiest word in the language” – p.245

There is little doubt Paterno’s longevity had much to do with his commitment to The Grand Experiment and his players, but as the twilight of his career played out, he would repeatedly face heartbreak and controversy. Amidst the losing season of 2000, Paterno faced negative press for defending Rashard Casey amid allegations he assaulted a police officer in a racially motivated fight (Casey was exonerated). After losses to USC, Toledo, and Pitt, Penn State was mired in a blow out by Ohio State.

After a hard hit on an OSU running back late in the game, Adam Taliaferro lay motionless on the gridiron. Jay Paterno would later say he only saw his father cry twice: when his mother Florence passed away, and when he saw Adam paralyzed on the football field:

 “I think he felt like he had failed to protect Adam Taliaferro.” – p. 268

Taliaferro would eventually recover and run on to the field during the home opener against Miami the next season, but his injury seemed to take an emotional toll on Paterno. This toll also seemed to carry over to the media, who Paterno said he no longer trusted after that season.

In February 2001, another pivotal event brought much pain and sadness to Paterno, an event that would eventually become his undoing 10 years later. A graduate assistant named Mike McQueary shocked Paterno one Saturday morning with the revelation that he had seen former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in the shower with a young boy the night before. Though much has been written about this event, and there is much speculation of what happened afterwards, Posnanski makes one thing clear: McQueary did not tell Paterno in full detail the seriousness of what he later claimed in the Sandusky grand jury hearings and trials. And either due to his old school background or McQueary’s reluctance to go into detail, it does not appear Paterno fully grasped the severity of Sandusky’s crimes. Joe in fact admitted he had to consult the University handbook to understand what steps he needed to take to ensure this situation was handled correctly.

At no point in the book does Posnanski suggest any element of a willful cover up, or that Paterno had any knowledge of other victims of Sandusky.

“Paterno would later say that if McQueary had told him he saw Sandusky raping a young boy, ‘We would have gone to the police right then and there, no questions asked.’” – p. 277

The 2001 season would be another losing season, and after a brief return to glory with a 9 win season in 2002, Paterno’s teams would have losing seasons in 2003 and 2004. Off field incidents would further mar the team and Paterno’s reputation. But digging into his classical literature background, Paterno rallied the program (and his career) behind Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. About his troubled players, he offered this take:

“I always thought it was my job to coach them and help them. I wasn’t going to hurt them and give up on them just so I could look good in the paper or some television report” – p. 296

2005 saw a return to winning football, as Penn State was 2 controversial seconds away from another undefeated season. Penn State would not have another losing season, until the NCAA vacated all wins dating back to 1998 as part of their sanctions to correct the “football culture” they were erroneously led to believe allowed Jerry Sandusky to victimize so many young boys.

One of Paterno’s last big battles, which would come back to haunt him in 2011, was against Vice President of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey (ED: it should be noted that Triponey was hired at the University of Connecticut prior to working for Penn State by Mark Emmert, the NCAA chairman who would later lay down the sanctions that vacated their wins). A controversial fight off campus occurred in April 2007 that involved many players from the team. Six were charged for their role, charges that included felonies. Triponey wanted to dismiss the players from school and administer their punishment solely through the Office of Judicial Affairs. Paterno wanted to handle the punishment internally, after the players received due process from the police investigations and trials.

Four players would have their charges dropped. The player who was at the center of the fight had five of six charges dropped and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Another player allegedly got into another fight later that year and was dismissed from the team. The narrative the media and Triponey would feed in the aftermath of the Sandusky indictments was that Joe Paterno ran the school like a despot, asserting absolute control over all in his “kingdom.” The headlines read “The Woman Who Dared to Stand Up to Paterno.” Yet Posnanski closes this chapter with an anonymous interview with one of the players:

“If it was up to that woman, they would have thrown me out of school and let me rot. That’s how she was. They only cared about me on Saturdays. Some of them didn’t even care about me then. 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.” – p 315

Paterno started the 2011 season believing it to be his last. He intended to retire at the end of the season, and invited the author of the book to accompany him for a year to document his final chapter. News of an investigation into Sandusky’s alleged actions with young boys broke in the Harrisburg Patriot-News in March, and Paterno had already testified briefly to a grand jury about the 2001 incident. Scott Paterno and Guido D’Elia urged Paterno to go public with what he knew:

“’We begged Joe to just say publicly what he knew,’ D’Elia said. ‘He wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t throw Tim [Curley – athletic director] or anybody else under the bus. He kept saying, ‘Just let it play out.’ In his mind, he had done what he was supposed to do, and he had told the truth about it, and that was that. That’s how he was. Do what you think is right, tell the truth, you’ll be fine.’” – p. 326

Paterno achieved his 409th career victory against Illinois on October 29, 2011. He had passed Grambling’s Eddie Robinson as the Division I leader for victories. His life and achievements would be celebrated and broadcast across the globe. Paterno had proven the Grand Experiment was a success; that “success with honor” was not just some hollow platitude. His life’s goals had come to fruition.

Less than a week later, it would all be destroyed. On November 5, 2011 the indictments against Jerry Sandusky, Tim Curley, and Gary Schultz were announced. The Paternos issued a statement expressing their prayers for the victims, but it seemed the storm was still to come. During the Grand Jury presentment, Paterno was considered a truthful and cooperative witness, but in an impromptu meeting with reporters after the presentment, Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan opined that while Paterno met his legal obligations, he failed in his moral obligations. This comment cast a shadow on everything Paterno said from that moment forward.

The public was skeptical of his claims that McQueary was vague. The Paternos reached out to the Penn State Board of Trustees on the advice of crisis manager Dan McGinn, and were completely rebuffed. Due to old scores going back to Paterno’s refusal to retire in 2004, he had lost all support on the Board of Trustees. Paterno was dismissed as head coach on the night of November 9, 2011 via a telephone call from trustee John Surma, CEO of US Steel. Paterno hung up in anger, but Sue immediately called Surma back and chided him:

“After sixty-one years, he deserved better!” – p. 340

It was revealed a few days later that Paterno had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He died the morning of January 22, 2012 surrounded by family and friends. Though he was clearly heart broken – both by the revelations of Sandusky’s horrible crimes that had happened on his watch, and by the way the Trustees, the media, and the public unfairly cast him as a man who willfully ignored the rape of children to protect his football program – Paterno was often upbeat in his final days:

“’I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. I’ve lived a great life. Healthy children. Healthy grandchildren. Loving wife. I look around the world and see people who have real problems, serious problems. I’m the luckiest guy.’” – p. 343

But there was also little doubt in his mind that the name and reputation he spent his whole life building to mean something, was now gone.

Posnanski closes the book with dozens of stories from former players and friends. Most relate some irascible side of Paterno, some aspect of his personality that was often too intense for his players, but full of lessons they took with themselves later in life. Paterno was no saint, but no devil either. He was human (“memento mori”), but had a powerful commitment to education and building the knights of his round table. He was a complicated man who believed in the goodness and potential of others, who trusted in old fashioned values even as the modern world made them seem obsolete, and he always pushed others AND himself to reach for more in order to achieve more.

Posnanski even reluctantly shares his own conversation with Paterno, at the round table, in the weeks before his death. Paterno asked Posnanski what he thought of all this. Posnanski replied:

“You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you.” – p. 361

It seems then that the expectations, more than the reality, clouded the judgment of Paterno after Sandusky’s crimes were revealed. There is no evidence – not in Posnanski’s book, not in the much flawed Freeh Report, not in any interview with Vicky Triponey – that suggests Paterno was a tyrant whose lust for power and the “good” name of the football program (and University) he spent six decades building made him ignore the welfare of young boys. His commitment to the betterment of the young men who participated in the football program suggests otherwise.

But this expectation lends one to believe that the reason people were so quick to judge Paterno was because his exemplary life made them think he should have done something more. Posnanski seems to confirm that the actions Paterno took in 2001 may have been the proper actions by law and University policy, but his impeccable reputation and standing within the Penn State community compelled him to do “more”. Though as with any conversation about Paterno, any further actions he may have taken in regards to Sandusky in 2001 would have involved further complications and fewer answers.

The core of Posnanski’s book can be seen in terms of Paterno’s legacy, and how there will always be more than one. At the heart of this opera is the quizzical notion that a man could spend over 80 years building and maintaining a football program, a university, a community, a family, and a life that revolved around doing things the “right” way . . . only to see it destroyed in the public eye in under 80 hours.

5 thoughts on “Review of Joe Posnanski’s ‘Paterno’

  1. This is a good synopsis/review of the book. I think that Posnanski did the best job that a biographer could do given the circumstances. This is a situation in which the writer was placed in a really difficult position. He’d obviously signed on to write the story of Joe Paterno’s life and to basically document his legacy — put the seal on it. It’s not difficult to imagine how that book — the one he was hired to write — would have played out — the ending of the 2011 season with most likely PSU going to a major bowl game with only one loss or none on their record and then Joe’s retirement announcement and the accolades that would have followed including the praise of the trustees who we now know were Joe’s worst enemies and who engineered his taking the brunt of the criticism for Sandusky’s criminality. God — how I would have loved to see that book and that ending — Joe receiving all of the praise and honor he deserved for a lifelong commitment to Penn State and the ideal of the true student-athlete.

    Nonetheless when circumstances changed — Posnanski continued to write his book and true to his character, Joe continued to work with him to write the new final chapter. That act alone by Joe reveals volumes about the man — that even as he faced death and knew in his heart that his reputation, all that he had built was being savaged not only by the media but by people who at one point in time he had trusted — the members of the PSU BOT — he did not back away and refuse to talk. He played the game until the clock ran out just as he’d taught his players to never give up, to play their best, and not give in to feeling sorry for themselves or the circumstances but to finish what they’d begun.

    Joe was a great man. He built Penn State into a national brand. The PSU BOT are in denial about it but anyone who came to Penn State during the Paterno era KNOWS the facts and the fact is that before Joe Paterno and Penn State football came to prominence, Penn State was just another eastern university that didn’t make a dent on the national scene or in the national conscience. I began at PSU in 1965 — in four years — I attended exactly ONE football game. But I am the first to admit that as Joe’s teams gained national attention, I took great pride in their accomplishments and when “The Grand Experiment” became the public face of Penn State football, my pride doubled and tripled. As an alumni I will never forget being at a dinner at which Joe and then retired from the NFL Franco Harris were the main speakers. Yes, Joe told some good football stories but his main talk was about education and the athlete that it wasn’t enough to be a great player, you had to emerge from the program as a good man and an educated man otherwise any victories were hollow.

    A great injustice has been done to a great man by people who are his inferiors — Mark Emmert, Vicki Triponey, Rodney Erickson and the PSU BOT (not including the newly elected members) — they are his inferiors intellectually, morally, and spiritually and we can only hope that Joe’s final wishes will come true that ultimately this will “play out” and the truth will be revealed in regard to what happened and why not only in 2001 but also in 1998 when the people who should have put Sandusky away — the Centre County DA, the PA Dept. of Public Welfare, a child psychologist, police officers, and the board and administrators of the Second Mile failed to put a stop to the pedophile in plain view.

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  2. Excellent comments and a wonderful review. So, so sad….I pray for
    Joel’s wish for this to truly “play out” and
    Joes inferiors get their just desserts.

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  3. Thank you for the comments. This book was very difficult to read, knowing what an exemplary life Joe did lead, the wonderful family he created with Sue and at Penn State, and how callously he was treated at the end of his life. The BoT has made this about football to cover their own failures, and sadly too many people bought their line of BS. Hopefully this book, the recent article by Malcolm Gladwell, and the push back by the former players, alumni, students, and “anonymous” donors will send the message: after 61 years, not only did Joe deserve better, but WE deserve better!

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  4. The long and short of the life story that Joe Paterno is, is that we who grew up following his life’s work came to know him and believe in what he stood fore and against! He was a man devoted to his family, faith ,country, Penn state, it’s students ,it’s athletes and “we are”, and the game of football! But most of all he always tried to relay to all and everyone in the progress, success and failures of his life’s work. Was that teamwork and hard work of the team was always the goal over the recognition of the individual!

    He was not perfect , he was human as the least of us and the best of us! He did his best to help his kids grow to become men , and to do their best. Yet realize they could learn as much from their short comings and failure as from their success. But most of all, live everyday well and good because it was important to do the right thing as best you can from where you are in life ,keeping an eye on where you want to go!

    In the end he knew you cannot control what the mob thinks of you and even less what they will say! For him it was enough that those who cared about what he cared about would be proud to stand and be counted among us and with him. As members of “we are”!

    And so it will have to be in the end that all those who count themselves among “we are” realize this truth however unjust it may feel! He would want us to realize it was more important about what “we are believes” then what the masses may believe is truth!

    He would say live well, do the right thing as best you can because in the end it’s only those close to you ,who will remember what you stood fore. And really that’s all anyone can expect from life! Everything else is just icing on the cake!l

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    1. Ron, I have found that how people feel about Paterno tends to be a reflection of what they believe about themselves. If you believe deep down that you are destined for great things, you tend to admire Paterno.

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