Book review: 'Paterno' biography somewhat sympathetic


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You don't have to be a college football fan or a consumer of televised sports to appreciate the acuity of this observation by the literary critic Wilfrid Sheed: "Sports communicate a code, a language of the emotions, and a tourist who skips the stadiums will not recoup his losses at Lincoln Center and Grant's Tomb."

What people admired about the late Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State football coach, was that he communicated a code of behavior that felt as immaculate and timeless as the plain blue and white uniforms his teams wore. He taught his players the kind of Dale Carnegie values that are easy to mock: hustle, discipline, academic achievement, charity, looking people in the eye, showing up on time, making the extra effort.


"PATERNO"
By Joe Posnanski
Simon & Schuster ($28).

Paterno was to modern college football as the Amish are to Insane Clown Posse. He sealed his reputation in 1973 when he turned down more than $1 million to coach the New England Patriots. His beautiful comment: "How much money does one man need?"

He was such a moral authority that when scandal touched him, he had a long way to drop. His longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky turned out to be a serial molester of boys, and Paterno did not do enough to stop him.

Joe Pa, as they called him at Penn State, began to look Nixonian. You could suddenly imagine the comic actor Eugene Levy portraying him on screen as a lecherous dweeb, his trousers hiked up to his nipples. Penn State fired him and later hauled away his statue, a Saddam Hussein moment. One of the most strangely touching moments in "Paterno," Joe Posnanski's new biography, is learning that this prudish coach had to ask one of his sons, "What is sodomy, anyway?"

Mr. Posnanski is a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who now works for a website called Sports on Earth. He set out to write this book, with Paterno's cooperation, in 2011, before the Sandusky scandal broke. He thus had the worst literary timing since Aldous Huxley's. Huxley had the misfortune to die the day President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. No one knew for months that he was gone.

"Paterno" is breezy and largely sympathetic. It doesn't contain (reverse spoiler alert) any especially startling revelations about what Paterno knew and when he knew it. It adds grain and texture to the historical record, though, while mostly skimming the surface of its subject's life.

One example of this book's relative slightness can stand in for many. Paterno's undergraduate years at Brown University are dismissed in three gauzy pages and two broad anecdotes, one of them about this middle-class Brooklyn boy's being mocked by snobs for wearing an unhip white sweater. There's not a single quotation about Paterno from a classmate. Most biographers suck on college years as if they were marrow bones; that's the time when, as Paterno knew so well, personalities are forged.

The book's best chapter, and the one many people will turn to first, is titled simply "Sandusky." Paterno hired Mr. Sandusky as a full-time assistant coach in 1969, when Mr. Sandusky was 25, and made him Penn State's defensive coordinator eight years later. The two men disliked each other almost from the start, Mr. Posnanski reports, and he adds new details about this uneasy relationship. Paterno thought Mr. Sandusky was a glory hound who wanted his job. Their styles were different. Paterno liked a drink now and then. Mr. Sandusky was a teetotaler.

Mr. Sandusky and his wife adopted six children and knew many more through their charity, Second Mile. Mr. Sandusky always had kids buzzing around him, even when there was Penn State work to be done. Mr. Posnanski says about Paterno's reaction: "The kids annoyed the hell out of him."

Mr. Sandusky turned out to be consummate evil. This past June he was convicted of 45 counts of the sexual abuse of young boys. How could this have gone on for so long without Paterno's knowledge? At least one instance of molesting was clearly reported to Paterno in 2001 -- details are fuzzy about how much detail Paterno absorbed -- and all the coach did was report the case to the university's athletic director.

An investigation by Louis Freeh, the former FBI director, concluded that Penn State officials, Paterno included, "exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky's victims." One Penn State employee says to the author about Paterno, in a quotation that rings across this biography: "Why didn't he follow up? Why?"

Mr. Posnanski does not let Paterno off the hook. He calls Penn State's and Paterno's response to early indications of Sandusky's depravity "sickeningly inadequate." But he sets Paterno's inaction in context: he was old, a bit befuddled and -- a sin in football -- he simply took his eyes off the ball. He'd stayed far too long as head coach, and was not the man he once had been.

The book's primal moment arrives in its final section. Mr. Posnanski sits alone with Paterno, who has already been fired and has learned he has lung cancer, at his kitchen table. "So," Paterno asks him, "what do you think of all this?"

Mr. Posnanski writes: "I told him that I thought he should have done more when he was told about Jerry Sandusky showering with a boy. I had heard what he had said about not understanding the severity, not knowing much about child molestation, not having Sandusky as an employee. But, I said: 'You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you.' "

The author adds: "He did not try to defend or deflect. He simply said, 'I wish I had done more,' again, and then he descended into another coughing fit."

"Paterno" makes a cogent case for absorbing Paterno's entire legacy, not merely his final sad months. (He died less than three months after he was fired.) Mr. Posnanski quotes these lines from the novel "The Ox-Bow Incident": "We desire justice. And justice has never been obtained in haste and strong feeling."

Throughout Paterno's 61-year run at Penn State, he was often accused of being a phony -- of not caring as much as he pretended to about academics, of being smug and sanctimonious and hypocritical. He could be a bully to his players. He was mostly absent from his own kids' lives. He had few close friends and was hard to know.

"Paterno" doesn't shy away from whatever truth is behind any of this stuff. But the author talks to many, many former players who felt lucky to know this man, who say he taught them about decency and hard work and changed their lives forever.

Was Paterno a phony? Someone once suggested something similar about the longtime Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. Mr. Posnanski reprints a sportswriter's response to that insinuation here: "Well, to do it that long, it's one hell of an act."

bookreviews

Dwight Garner is a New York Times book critic.


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