Collier: Paterno biography has merit, but poor timing

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So just as Penn State is ready to welcome the autumnal rhythms for which it became famous and then famously infamous -- the Nittany Lions open the football season at home against Ohio a week from tomorrow -- here arrives Joe Posnanski's long-awaited book about Joe Paterno.

Its publication date bumped forward to capitalize on the continuing fascination with the unimaginably lurid events of last fall, "Paterno" (Simon & Schuster) made it to bookshelves this week just as university president Graham Spanier's lawyers began squealing balefully for justice.

But nobody has to describe the often painful consequences of poor timing to Posnanski, the ultra-skilled sports writer who started this project long before cable news ever heard of Jerry Sandusky. What does a writer do when he resolves to illuminate Paterno in ways singular and unprecedented (even if wholly unnecessary) and instead winds up standing next to Humpty Dumpty?

As you'd expect, not even Posnanski's best insights and vividly balanced prose spread throughout 373 pages can put the once platinum image of the late coach back together again.

"It is beyond the scope of this book to look at the role of anyone but Paterno in this harrowing affair," Posnanski writes in introducing the fateful but ... "But it is certain that no one, Paterno included, was aware enough, courageous enough, or decent enough to stop a man who would be found guilty of forty-five counts of child molestation. Jerry Sandusky committed heinous crimes against children, and -- as Paterno himself said -- many people in and around State College would have deep regrets. Nobody -- not the president of the school, not the athletic director, not the legendary coach -- reported the incident to the police, and this would haunt a community, shatter the reputation of a great American university, and darken the legacy of the coach who made it his life's goal to strive for success with honor."

Well, yes, that's pretty much it, but the other problem of timing for this book is that the audience already has magnetized to the poles, just as it does on every American issue of major or even minor importance.

The people who have decided that Paterno isn't much more than a pedophile-enabling tyrant probably won't even read this book, but the people who'll never be convinced that St. Joe could consciously look the other way in that circumstance because he was simply too righteous aren't going to like Posnanski's book much, either.

In case anyone is wondering, that's a compliment.

Posnanski finds and highlights all of one life's ironies in these pages.

This, for example, is Paterno in his commencement address at Penn State in June 1973.

"If each of us is easily seduced by expediency, by selfishness, by ambition regardless of cost to our principles, then the spectacle of Watergate will surely mark the end of this grand experiment in Democracy. One of the tragedies of Watergate is to see so many bright young men, barely over 30, who have so quickly prostituted their honor and decency in order to get ahead. To be admired. To stay on the team. These same young men, within the short period of the last ten years, sat in on convocations such as this. They were ready to change the world. They didn't trust the over-thirty-generation.

"I warn you: Don't underestimate the world. It can corrupt quickly and completely."

For someone who had what his brother, George called, "a pathological need to do the right thing," and for whom the right thing often meant the same thing over and over, the way things were meant to be done, Paterno seemed to ignore the inevitability and power of change.

The Paterno of 1973, the paragon of simplicity, humility, and quotidian excellence, was not the Paterno of '80, much less '90, 2000, or certainly '10. By the time Joe Paterno was confronted by the events that would ruin him ("My name," he literally cries to his son, Jay, in this book, "I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it's gone."), he was not the same energized educator who put Penn State on the map. The school's leadership had to see the signals of decline, especially in his last 10 years, but somehow felt powerless to act.

I'd known Joe for 35 years. Had dinner at his house. Shot the breeze with him Friday nights before games. I had one-on-one interviews with him up until 2007, long after he'd decided he didn't want to do those kinds of things anymore.

But by about '02, it was obvious he'd finally allowed everyone to convince him that he was a legend, that he could say anything, that he could do anything and that everyone would just have to live with it.

He told an Orange Bowl news conference in '06 that a suspended Florida State linebacker was probably the victim of circumstance for getting suspended for sexually assaulting a student. "There's so many people gravitating to these kids," he explained, "He may not have known what he was getting into. Cute girl knocks on the door, what do you do? Geez, thank God they don't knock on my door, because I'd refer them to a couple of other rooms."

The National Organization for Women called for his resignation. Penn State shrugged.

A year later, Joe hopped out of his car on campus and shook his finger at a woman driving another car. "Watch it! Be Careful! I have your license number and I will call the police on you!"

Joe Paterno was by that point, in this view, no longer equipped to be head coach, much less to be Joe Paterno, God of Righteousness. That he coached for most of another four seasons is a small miracle, and that he was fired, diagnosed with cancer and then died within three months of the last game he coached is the very kind of Shakespearean tragedy he once studied so earnestly.

In his final days, Posnanski writes, he was no longer despondent.

This book could restore some order to the Paterno discussion, still so overheated in the moment.

"The [criticism] really doesn't matter," the coach said in his last conversation with the author. "It really doesn't. I know what I tried to do. Maybe everybody will see that in time. Maybe they won't. Maybe they will judge me by what I tried to do. Maybe they won't. What difference does it make? I just hope there's justice for the victims."

books - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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