Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Review: Paterno (2012)
As writing assignments go, this one turned out to be almost cruel.
Joe Posnanski, one of America's best sports writers, was given the chance to write a book on one of America's coaching icons. He'd been promised great access to the subject of the biography, who probably would retire at the end of his last season. He'd also been given the chance to examine the subject's personal records. It would be a chance to salute one of the icons of the sports world.
But the icon in question was Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who was caught up in one of the biggest scandals in the history of college sports in the fall of 2011.
"Mr. Posnanski, you're going to have to change some of the tone of the book in order to consider this new information. Oh, and do it as fast as you can, because the public is anxious to read about this and every day that you don't publish it costs us all money."
The resulting book is "Paterno." It's not the book that Posnanski thought he was going to write, certainly, but still worth your time.
Paterno was headed for the mythical Mount Rushmore of coaches until the past year. Yes, he won games, more than any other football coach. He won a few national championships along the way. Paterno turned the middle of Pennsylvania -- and if you've ever been there, you know it's pretty close to the middle of the proverbial nowhere -- into one of the power centers of the college football universe. No small task.
Paterno did it the right way, too. His players graduated, went on to successful lives in many cases, and remembered the lessons they learned from their coach along the way. It wasn't idyllic; there were tough years and bad apples along the way. But it was close.
Most of the book still salutes that tone. Posnanski writes about dozens and dozens of players, coaches, etc. who had a relationship with Paterno. Joe Pa was something of the quirky mad scientist at times, always preferring to hide in his home office and work on some new defense than anything else. Yet he found time to raise a family (with his wife's considerable help), challenge the university to raise its standards, and raised millions to help his school reach a goal of excellence.
Alas, that single-mindedness came back to haunt him. When graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw "something" in a shower involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and a young boy, he reported the incident to Paterno. The head coach passed along the information and never followed up on it. Paterno joins in the chorus here that he should have done more. Paterno and Sandusky apparently didn't get along well, and it's tough to say if there were other clues about Sandusky's behavior that Paterno missed or didn't want to see. Posnanski leaves that for others to investigate.
Guido D'Elia was a friend of Paterno's who saw the coach up close for decades and was convinced of his goodness, but even he couldn't figure out why Paterno didn't follow up on the incident. "Find the answer to that, and you have the story," he said.
So, we don't have the full story, and maybe we never will. Clearly we need time for everything to be sorted out, and time wasn't on Posnanski's side. The book feels a little rushed in spots, with some duplication of material. Yet there is much here that is worth reading, much that gives us insight into this simple yet complicated man.
"Paterno" is an artfully written book that supplies many of the pieces that went into the subject's life. We'll have to see if there are other pieces that complete the puzzle.
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