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The Chambers Report: Paterno

Joe Posnanski, named best sportswriter in America this year by the Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame, agreed to pen Joe Paterno's biography just a few months before the notorious Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal, in November 2011, obliterated Paterno's carefully built pristine image, as well as that of his employer, Pennsylvania State University.

As the scandal was unfolding before all of us, Posnanski came more and more to view the great football coach's remarkable life story as a riveting soap opera in which an apparently profoundly moral man was suddenly brought low by human weakness, carrying down with him the now celebrated institution that he had done more than anyone else to build.

The eventual shape of Paterno, in fact, took on that of an opera, with Posnanski dividing his book into five acts, complete with arias, intermezzos, a beginning overture, a closing finale, and even an encore. Its flowery chapters are also melodic and dramatic, bearing such titles as "The Grand Experiment," "Sainthood," "Mountaintop," "Evil and Good," and "To Be or Not to Be." In the end, such bombast seems fitting to Posnanski's task. His subject, after all, was anything but an ordinary man.

The biographer opens his tale this way:

This is the story of a man named Joe Paterno, who in his long life was called moral and immoral, decent and scheming, omniscient and a figurehead, hero and fraud, Saint Joe and the devil. A life, of course, cannot be reduced to a single word, but Joe Paterno had something bold and soaring in his personality that attracted extremes. That boldness compelled him to do remarkable and unprecedented things.That boldness also led people to say that, at the end, his failures destroyed whatever good he had done.

Posnanski's orchestration follows the conventional "beginning, middle, and end" structure found in most novels and operas, as well as in many biographies. This allows him to start out with the glory days of Paterno's youth and later advancing fame at Penn State before the tragic Sandusky saga, like a looming thunderstorm, inevitably overtakes and then destroys "JoePa" (as he came to be called in State College).

When he started out, Posnanski had no clear path to the conclusion of Paterno. By the end history had found it for him.

* * *

Early on we see Joe Paterno as a talented Brooklyn boy who was born to lead. His modest father Angelo, a court clerk, did all that he could to open doors for his gifted son, making it possible for Joe - as well as his brother George - to attend Brooklyn Prep, one of the best schools in New York City, where he became a football star, developed considerable local fame, and eventually won admiration and financial support from famed comic-book "titan" Everett "Busy" Arnold, a self-made mega-millionaire who paid Joe's way to Brown University where his adult life was truly launched.

At Brown, Paterno's football skills continued to grow under the guidance of Charles A. "Rip" Engle, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame who started out playing at Western Maryland College for the legendary Dick Harlow, another Hall of Famer, who went on to coach at Harvard and, stunningly, to hold a position there simultaneously as professor of ornithology.

Young Joe was so taken with Engle that during his senior year in Providence he abandoned his father's plan for him to become a lawyer (and perhaps, at least in Angelo's dream, one day be elected President of the United States) by accepting Engle's offer to accompany him to his new coaching post at Penn State, then a relatively little- known "cow college"(Posnanski's term) in an isolated central Pennsylvania village, where Paterno would remain for six decades and become a legend himself, in the process transforming the backwater school into the colossal behemoth it is today.

From the outset at Penn State, Paterno was viewed widely as a rising star. It is often forgotten that he labored for 16 seasons as an assistant coach under Engle, waiting somewhat impatiently to succeed his mentor.

During these years, Joe married his wife Sue - whom he had met when she, a decade younger than he, was a Penn State undergraduate - had several children, and began to attract job offers from across the nation.

Posnanski frankly reports that JoePa was a poor father, often despised by his kids, who cared about very little in life other than being a football coach. Sue invariably gave in to this, for that was just the way things were to be when wed to such a focused fanatic (she often told anyone within earshot that "I wasn't courted by Joe...I was recruited!").

When in 1966 Paterno at last succeeded Engle as head Penn State football coach, he was more than ready to continue his steady ascent to the summit of the college football pyramid, a rise that would make him the most famous coach in America, the most powerful person in Pennsylvania, the winningest NCAA Division I college football coach of all time (409-136-3 in 46 regular seasons, plus winning 24 of 37 post-season bowl games, another record*), and bring him head coaching offers from everywhere - from the Baltimore Colts, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Oakland Raiders to Yale and virtually every other Ivy League school.

Most famously, New England Patriots owner Billy Sullivan begged Joe to become the his head coach and offered him in return an unprecedented $1 million salary, along with countless other financial benefits, as well as "complete control" of the team, with no second-guessing or any questions being asked.

The package was, in a word, staggering, by far the most generous ever made to any coach at the time (1973). So magnificent was it that Joe actually accepted the offer - for one day.

By the next morning, however, he changed his mind, largely through loyalty to his kids and to Sue, who couldn't imagine living anywhere other than in State College.

According to Posnanski, "That was the moment when Joe Paterno decided who he wanted to be."

The decision animated the entire country in a difficult and impressionable era nationally, turning JoePa into a "Public Saint." The timing was auspicious; it was the Age of Watergate, of the Vietnam War, of the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich, as well as of recession at home, and "here was Joe Paterno, the coach who looked like a professor, saying no to money and glory so he could coach young men in college." When asked why he turned Sullivan's offer down, Joe said, simply, "How much money does one man need?"

Joe's life story and famously moralistic philosophy were, in a stroke, fully verified, certified, authenticated.

"His personal tale now seemed impervious to cynicism," no matter how self-righteous and sanctimonious he had long seemed to many. JoePa's great gesture gave authority to the so-called "Grand Experiment," his much ballyhooed belief that football, academics, and life lessons could - and should - be merged, could - and should - co-exist in one unified philosophical whole that would stabilize young athletes, give them purpose in life, and carry them on to glory far beyond the gridiron.

It was the "Grand Experiment" that had largely spawned Joe's holier-than-thou image in the first place. Now the recruiting pitch in living rooms across America that had long won parents, far more than students, into Paterno's orbit was accepted as truth by all. "Play for the team, not yourself. Be unselfish. There are more important things than individual glory." These lessons were now given a new kind of power.

That same summer - 1973 - the coach was invited to deliver the Penn State commencement address, an event lifting him to still greater heights as a cultural icon; it was, as Posnanski puts it, "the peak of his life."

Even so, cynicism could not be entirely stifled. As more than one on-looker, squirming under JoePa's lofty aura, put it: "Nobody's that good."

And so it proved to be. From the mountaintop experience of the commencement address, Paterno's halo began to slip. In the wake of much hagiography in such admired publications as Time, Newsweek and the New York Times, as well as in a new book which "godded up" its subject with such over-enthusiastic sentences as "This, then, is Joe Paterno. Football coach, intellectual maverick, philosopher, social worker, leader, gambler, idealist, romanticist, humanist, activist,"** there was, perhaps, only one way to go.

The slide began in earnest with a falling-out between JoePa and his adoring sportswriters (whom he often regaled behind closed doors with ribald stories, well lubricated with alcohol). After his bad-mouthing of Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and Pitt's Jackie Sherrill at one of these boozy sessions, word leaked out, publicly besmirching the great man's flawless image and thereby haunting him to his dying day.

Though Switzer, in particular, seemed forgiving later on, he ultimately turned on Paterno when the Sandusky scandal was approaching its apex of notoriety. Although Joe held until the very end that he had been fooled, that he had not been told the complete story and did not know about Sandusky's crimes against children, Switzer simply responded, publicly, "Everyone on that staff had to know."

A defining characteristic for Joe Paterno was his deep-rooted dislike of change. As Posnanski notes, "Every drill, every meeting, every practice, every speech, was governed by how things have always been."

That's why he insisted that his team's uniforms be the plainest and simplest in college football; why he and Sue lived their entire life together in the same modest State College house; why he took his lonely daily walks along the same paths - and why he could not fire any of his assistants, including, for years, Jerry Sandusky, whom he came to despise.

Paterno and Sandusky rarely agreed on anything. As, according to Posnanski, "everyone knew," the two men hated each other almost from the start. They openly clashed in front of others. Joe thought Sandusky was a towel-slapper and a "goof-ball" and resented the fact that the Penn State players adored him for that.

Paterno was himself not a man people easily loved, including, as noted above, even his own children, for whom he had little time. He was "a stern father-figure: brilliant but distant, caring but judgmental, loving but cold." Sandusky, in sharp contrast to JoePa, was a teetotaling, deeply devout Christian - one reason he started The Second Mile for troubled youngsters (he and his wife Dottie couldn't have children of their own so they adopted six) in 1971 - who was constantly surrounded by kids.

All these kids, says Posnanski, "annoyed the hell out of Joe, though he said again and again that he saw nothing perverse in Jerry's dealing with children."

Since Paterno had never publicly fired a coach, he was long unable to get rid of Sandusky, no matter how much he came to loath him for being a slacker. For his side, Jerry was resentful because Joe would not publicly name him as his successor, even though virtually everyone in the Penn State nation thought he would deserve the job when (and if!) the time arrived - many fans, in fact, came to see Paterno as losing his powers as he aged and thus incorrectly believed that Sandusky was, in effect, running the team already. Jerry had long felt that the position should eventually be his, but that he had been betrayed by his boss.

Wherever all this stood, whatever JoePa may have been told about Sandusky's perversions, "there is," says Posnanski, "reason to believe that it didn't make much of an impact on him." He was, after all, a football coach, not a judge or jury, and it seems evident that the personal crochets of others made little difference to him. He was simply afraid, as Sue put it, to push out "the second most famous coach in Pennsylvania." Eventually, however, Joe had had enough and so in 1999 he gave Sandusky that final season, together with a generous retirement package, and "then didn't give him another thought."

This set the stage for football assistant Mike McQueary to come to Paterno with his story of having seen Sandusky naked in a gym shower with a young boy - "in either February 2001 or March 2002" (according to Posnanski, "everything about the incident would eventually become a point of contention"). In effect, the 2001 or 2002 McQueary conversation was a kind of "second mile," dredging up again seamy 1998 grand jury hearings into early complaints against Sandusky.

Whatever Paterno may or may not have known in 1998 or 2001-02, e-mails eventually emerged last year to indicate that he had earlier been neither ignorant nor innocent. Though Joe continued to insist that, with regard to his conversation with McQueary, he had done all that he had been required to do in reporting what he had been told to his supposed Penn State superiors (athletic director Tim Curley, vice president Gary Schultz, and president Graham Spanier), the trail of e-mails that surfaced (none actually sent by Paterno himself, who had no e-mail account) led to the general view that JoePa was hardly either ignorant or innocent in dealing with the 1998 or 2001-02 incidents, as he claimed; far worse, in the lacerating and lengthy report prepared by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, he was shown instead to have been fully culpable in convincing the other three men to, in 2001, back off the Sandusky matters entirely as far as the public was concerned in favor of keeping it all in-house at Penn State.

So what is finally to be said about JoePa's guilt or innocence?

According to Posnanski, the Paterno family in the end were as one in believing "That Joe Paterno had been told a vague story about a former football coach he didn't like or trust. Then, following the law and University policy and his own guiding light, he had reported what he was told to Tim Curley. This was what he was required to do and, knowing the circumstances, they believed this is what he should have done. He had not been charged with lying to the grand jury. If Jerry Sandusky was guilty, then hundreds of people had been fooled: child care professionals, law enforcement officials, co-workers at his (Sandusky's) charity, parents, judges, close friends of Sandusky, and many others. Those closest to Paterno believed that when he went public with what he knew and what he did, most people would understand that he was fooled like everyone else."

At bottom, the story had become more about Paterno than about Sandusky. Finally understanding his isolation, Joe looked to the Penn State Board of Trustees for help and found that not one member would come forth for him. He had lost them all in 2004 following a clash in his home with Graham Spanier when he had arrogantly - and adamantly - refused the Ppresident's insistence that he retire.

When on November 4, 2011, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office filed its presentment against Sandusky on 40 counts of sexual assault and advances on eight boys from 1994 to 2009, the die was fully cast. As Posnansky observes, JoePa lost America over night. "Before November 5, 2011, it was very difficult to find anyone willing to say a truly bad word about Joe Paterno. After November 5, it was far more difficult to find anyone willing to say a good word."

In their final conversation just before Joe's death from cancer, the old coach asked his biographer, "What do you think of all this?"

Posnanski's response was that he should have done more when he was told about Sandusky's showering with a young boy. "You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you."

The ultimate judgments are yet to be made in this sordid case. Many people with whom I have spoken firmly insist that Paterno and Penn State got exactly what they deserved. Their anger is total, unyielding. They are entirely unforgiving and are liable to remain so. In their view, whatever else JoePa may have accomplished in his long life simply had to be erased in light of his role in the sinful cover-up that allowed the now disgraced Sandusky to continue his abuse of children (including one of his own adopted sons) for several more years.

Other people try to be more understanding and more forgiving. One of Joe's friends, Guido D'Elia, a former Penn State marketing man, for example, was of a far different mind in summing up Paterno's life for Posnanski:

"I'm not sad about Joe himself. I really am not. Nobody can touch him now. He got to do exactly what he wanted to do his whole life. He spent his retirement coaching, if you think about it. And that's all he wanted to do . . . You know what Joe told me before he died? He said he wasn't worried about his legacy. He said that in time people would see that he had tried to do the right things. He said that in time people would be able to step back and see his accomplishments as well as his mistakes and judge him for the whole life . . . There will never be another one like him."

Perhaps. When, near the end, his son Scott asked his father if he had known anything about Sandusky, Paterno responded testily: "[W]hy are you badgering me? What do I know about Jerry Sandusky? I've got Nebraska to think about, I can't worry about this."


*These huge numbers would, after Paterno's death and delivery of the devastating Freeh commission report, be shockingly altered by unprecedented NCAA sanctions vacating all Penn State football victories since 1998.

**Joe Paterno: Football My Way by Mervin D. Hyman, of Sports Illustrated and and Gordon S. White of the New York Times, in collaboration with Paterno.


Comments welcome.


Previously in The Chambers Report:

* Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

* The Last Boy Of Summer

* Melville, Elvis And Baseball

* A Tale Of Three Cities

* How Obama And Bush Undermined America

* Ayes For Atheism


Posted on November 17, 2012

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