One thing is obvious after reading “Paterno,” the much-anticipated biography chronicling disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno: The biographer doesn’t know his subject.
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This explains Joe Posnanski’s reluctance to express an opinion about the deceased football coach he allegedly spent nearly two years getting to know intimately. In the few interviews Posnanski, the book’s biographer, has consented to, the celebrated sportswriter has ducked characterizing his thoughts on Paterno by saying he wants readers to make up their own minds regarding Paterno and his legacy.
Posnanski’s fluffy, 400-plus-page opus provides sparse guidance. What it inadvertently does, for the highly careful reader, is expose how a coach and a writer can sacrifice their integrity over time, one compromised decision at a time.
It’s difficult to discern what is most shallow in Posnanski’s book — the reporting, the access or the insight.
A mere 26 pages in and the “journalist” who reportedly had unprecedented access to Paterno, the coach’s family, confidants and football program is reduced to retelling a story spoken by a female football intern at a Paterno memorial service recalling the coach walking into his office, catching her eyes and remarking: “It’s cold out there, heh?”
“He was a legend,” Kait Sawyer is quoted in the book. “And he was talking to me.”
That was the book’s first glimpse into Paterno’s soul. JoePa, an old man, made small talk with a young woman. Imagine that.
From there, the book attempted to create the appearance it delved deeper. But it offered little evidence of its descent. I read the book slowly, over four days. I took notes. I re-read. Simon & Schuster, the publisher, trumpeted the fact Posnanski embedded himself in Happy Valley for more than a year, researching Paterno, Penn State and The Grand Experiment.
With the exception of Posnanski’s interaction with former Penn State fullback Don Abbey, the book reads like a series of cleverly written blog postings buttressed by brief telephone interviews. Posnanski, the storyteller without ego according to his passionate band of sycophants, is center stage throughout “Paterno,” most often without good reason. He delights in explaining how inconsequential figures in the book acquired nicknames. He showboats, sharing nerdy, pointless and colorful background stories on Herschel Walker and Bear Bryant. Posnanski dances and distracts because he has little that is new or enlightening to share about his subject, Joe Paterno.
Based on the content of the book, Posnanski barely had any more access to Paterno and Penn State football than the typical Penn State beat writer. All the dialogue with Paterno reads as though it transpired during a couple of rushed interviews after Penn State dismissed Paterno and the coach’s family realized it needed a biographer/stenographer to record Paterno’s rationalizations.
There is virtually no scene-setting or description of the quoted sources’ emotions and body language when speaking about Paterno. Sources who say nothing of consequence are granted anonymity. There isn’t one piece of insight into what Paterno actually did as a coach in his latter years. Was Posnanski ever inside Penn State’s locker room? Did he ever see Paterno interact with current players or coaches on the practice field, in his office, at his home? Did Posnanski attend any Penn State games during Paterno’s final season? Insiders within the program surely knew the Sandusky cloud was hovering over the final season. As a journalist, did Posnanski ever ask to see the scene of Sandusky’s most infamous crime? Whatever insight about Happy Valley that Posnanski gleaned from allegedly living there isn’t in this book. And, most tragically, the book lacks a sophisticated, nuanced point of view and/or narrative.
The book relies heavily on the perspective of Guido D’Elia, a Paterno insider Posnanski describes as a “Penn State marketing guru.” Hats off to Guido. Job well done. He convinced Posnanski that perusing Paterno’s sanitized, Paterno-family-approved handwritten coaching notes and letters from his time in the military represented groundbreaking access.
The short chapter Posnanski wrote exploring Paterno and race is but one glaring example of the book’s shallowness. The chapter is built around the plight of Penn State’s first black quarterback, Mike Cooper. It was the 1970 season and Cooper lasted only a handful of games before getting benched. Penn State didn’t have another black starting QB until the 1990s. According to the book, Cooper lives in Harrisburg, Pa. Posnanski never talked to Cooper about his experience at Penn State. Posnanski wrote about Cooper as though he were dead.
“Cooper graduated from Penn State and moved back to Harrisburg, where he worked for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. Teammates rarely heard from him,” the book stated.
On a whim Saturday morning while eating breakfast in a Las Vegas hotel, I tracked down Cooper’s ex-wife, his former boss, a cousin and finally Mike Cooper. He retired last March from the Housing Finance Agency. He returned my call — he said “accidentally” — but declined to be interviewed about Paterno. Cooper isn’t dead. Give a motivated journalist a year in Pennsylvania, a research assistant and a $750,000 book advance, and I bet he/she could crack Mike Cooper.
As for a peek into Paterno’s thoughts on race, we’re left with the well-worn story about a northern coach who led his team out of a southern restaurant that refused to serve one of his black players in the 1960s.
Seriously, most puddles are deeper than “Paterno.”
It’s the antithesis of John Feinstein’s “A Season on the Brink” and Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights.”
“Paterno” is “A Tuesday with JoePa (and Guido).”
Despite the Posnanski-friendly narrative that the Sandusky storm came from nowhere and unexpectedly ruined Posnanski’s plan to write a hagiography, the storm clouds and what they meant for Paterno were evident for more than a year before his firing. People in Pennsylvania — where Posnanski was allegedly embedded — were writing about and gossiping about Jerry Sandusky and the grand jury investigation for nearly a year before he was arrested and charged. There was no surprise. There was plenty of time to prepare and craft a narrative that neither vilified nor sanctified Paterno. There was time to explore Paterno’s humanity and the unique set of circumstances and conditions that grossly compromised Paterno’s integrity.
Paterno, like Tom Osborne, Bill McCartney and countless others, let the media define for him what was most important — finishing the season ranked No. 1 while appearing to adhere to the NCAA’s unethical rule book.
The Saint revealed he was a Sinner when he attacked President Nixon for declaring the 1969 Texas-Arkansas winner national champion over Paterno’s soft-schedule-undefeated Nittany Lions. Paterno professed there were more important pursuits than winning. After having two undefeated teams denied a mythical title, he became obsessed with finishing No. 1. For decades, he was the most vocal proponent for a playoff system. In the late 1970s, he started bending his self-imposed recruiting rules and taking players who didn’t fit his rigid profile.
Posnanski fails to connect the obvious dots, but he unwittingly tells the story anyway. Matt Millen was the type of player Paterno previously avoided. He was a wild hell-raiser who originally wanted to go to Colorado because the Buffs were going to pay him, according to Posnanski’s book. Millen wound up captain of the 1979 Penn State team. The team disappointed. Paterno kicked several players off the team, including Franco Harris’ younger brother. Paterno stripped Millen of his captaincy. The squad severely underachieved and Paterno considered retiring in the aftermath.
A self-righteous man doesn’t sacrifice integrity overnight. It happens methodically. It happens when his ambition concludes the calendar isn’t cooperating. A middle-aged sportswriter might still dream of being as famous as Mitch Albom. An aging coach might want to be as revered and beloved as John Wooden. Paterno, Sandusky and Mike McQueary were on a collision course for three decades. Paterno’s vanity and insecurity — the ingredients necessary to play deaf, dumb and blind to Sandusky’s heinous perversion — were on full display when he went after President Nixon, when Paterno first publicly exposed he cared too deeply what others thought of his team and its accomplishments.
“President Nixon knows more about college football than he does Watergate,” Paterno famously quipped.
President Nixon might retort that Joe Paterno knows more about Barry Switzer and Jackie Sherrill —coaches Paterno smugly accused of breaking NCAA rules —than Jerry Sandusky, a 30-year assistant.
As best I could tell, the book has one true motive —distancing Paterno from Sandusky.
The book spends a great deal of time crediting Paterno for every good thing that happened to Penn State football, especially on defense. Paterno, according to Posnanski, put his best players on defense, single-handedly invented a 4-4-3 defense in his second season and came up with the defensive strategies that stopped Walker and Georgia and Vinny Testaverde and Miami in PSU’s two most important games. The book alleges that Sandusky’s disinterest and lack of professionalism ruined what should’ve been Paterno’s third national championship team, the 1999 Nittany Lions. The team was loaded on both sides of the ball with future pros. The poorly coached defense ruined the season, the book claims. PSU lost its final three regular-season games in what turned out to be Sandusky’s final season as defensive coordinator. At the postseason banquet Paterno eschewed the tradition of speaking individually about each senior player. He claimed he did so because the coaching staff let the seniors down. A rational biographer, acknowledging Paterno’s massive ego and vanity, might suggest Paterno did it because he felt the seniors let him down.
The book also argues that Paterno hated Sandusky. I actually believe this. Sandusky connected with Penn State players in a way that surely pushed Paterno’s jealousy buttons.
The book had one other discernible goal — distancing Posnanski from his journalistic cowardice and fraudulence. Posnanski cut a financial deal with Simon & Schuster and Joe Paterno. An unspecified and unexplained portion of the reported $750,000 advance would be donated to the charity of Paterno’s choice, Posnanski admitted in a blog posting last November. This financial arrangement served as the self-imposed golden handcuffs that justified Posnanski hearing every implausible Paterno rationalization — “what is sodomy?” — as potential gospel. "Paterno" is a memoir, not a biography. This was a limited partnership from the outset, with the iconic, manipulative and narcissistic coach wielding all the power . . . even from his grave.
The private, JoePa-vs.-JoePo, “what do you make of all this?” anecdote — where Posnanski allegedly tells Paterno man to man that he didn’t do enough to stop Sandusky — printed at the end of the book was Posnanski’s weak way of cutting the strings from his dead puppeteer.
Posnanski writes that Paterno simply repeated his previously reported regret that he didn’t do more to stop Sandusky. The conversation was not shared to tell us anything new about Paterno. It was solely printed to put the biographer in a more favorable, tough-guy light.
Too late. “Paterno” reveals far more about the biographer than the subject.