Jeff Pearlman

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Paterno, by Joe Posnanski: The Review

It’s funny. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post for this blog on Joe Posnanski and his upcoming biography, Paterno. It was pretty critical (I didn’t especially dig all the actions associated with the pre-release), and the response was an overwhelming amen! That entry remains the most read offering in this site’s four-year history (not saying a whole lot, but, hey), and it led some to think that I have something against Joe Pos—which I absolutely don’t.

In fact, I’ve been taken aback by the negativity surrounding this week’s release of Paterno, a book that has sold well but has also been widely battered. As I experienced with Sweetness, too often people are willing to tee off on the content of a text without, ahem, reading the content of a text. Hence, I bring to you the following entry—a genuine review of Paterno.

For the record, I didn’t write it. I’m in the middle of researching a book, which (regrettably) consumes too much time to read stuff unrelated to the task at hand. The reviewer is my friend and colleague, the excellent Michael J. Lewis, a freelance journalist who has spent his career working for myriad newspapers and magazines. Mike is both a Posnanski admirer (factually, brotha can write) and a 100-percent objective dude. He’s also a helluva scribe, as you can see by visiting his blog and following him on Twitter.

Without further ado, Michael J. Lewis on Paterno …

If you came here looking for a discussion of whether Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, who came to the school five years after World War II and only left last November, did all he could to prevent the despicable behavior of Jerry Sandusky, you’re in the wrong place.

There have been millions of words spilled on the subject, and sure, I could I spill a few more (and I will; there’s no way to talk about Joe Posnanski’s new book, “Paterno,” without at least touching on Sandusky).

But there’s so much fascinating material in “Paterno” that I wanted to focus on the parts of the man’s life that made him either a saint or a fraud in so many people’s eyes.

First, let me say that despite so many journalists rushing to judgment about the book before it was written, Posnanski has really written a balanced biography. With just about every portrayal of Paterno’s life (his famous ego, his stubbornness, his feelings on race and politics), you can practically feel the author bending over backwards to show both sides.

I will say that it did take me a little while to get into the book; for the first 50 pages or so Posnanski seems to rattle around his subject’s life too much, going from the past to the present right before Paterno died in January on almost every page. You almost get verbal whiplash.

But “Paterno” settles in when we get to the nasal-voiced screamer’s arrival in State College, Pa.—then and now a sleepy college town that’s mad for football.

Lots of things jumped out at me while reading about the incredible 60-year tenure of JoePa:

• It’s amazing how many times, just from a football standpoint, Paterno could’ve been fired based on his team’s performance. There were so many lulls, especially in the early part of last decade, that you kept thinking, “OK, this has to be it for him.” But the man just kept on going, and no one or nothing could stop him. Which leads to …

• It’s also amazing how many people, over the years, Paterno intimidated into silence. This of course speaks to how powerful he was at the school, and Posnanski shows us lots of stories of Paterno using that power (perhaps most disturbingly, when his players got into legal trouble). It’s sickening how much power Paterno had.

• Truly, reading the stories of how he tortured players verbally, and sometimes physically, you begin to look at Paterno as a complete bully. Then you read about how he sat with ex-star John Cappelletti’s disabled kid brother, and you think “Oh, he’s not so bad.” There are so many stories of ex-players in here talking about how much Paterno changed their lives, and how grateful they are to him. Almost all of them, though, said they hated the coach while playing for him.

• In this day and age of flash over substance, and teenaged athletes wanting instant gratification, it’s hard to believe Paterno kept getting great players at Penn State for all his years. What kid wants to go play for a coach in his 70s?

• It’s interesting to learn from Posananski how much Sandusky and Paterno disliked one another. I mean, they worked together for 30 years, and seemed to hate each other quite a bit. What I don’t understand, and what Posnanski doesn’t really get at, is why did Paterno put up with a guy he loathed? You know how many coaches in America would’ve loved to have been defensive coordinator at Penn State? So why did Paterno, who thought little of Sandusky’s coaching ability, keep him around?

That of course leads to the elephant in the room—the Sandusky molestation details. Posnanski rehashes everything we’ve learned in the past nine months, and there’s not a lot of new reporting in here about that. At the end of his life Paterno seems to regret he didn’t do more to stop Sandusky, but sort of throws up his hands and says, “What did you want me to do.” Posnanski also blurs the line about what Paterno knew and when he knew it by showing us Mike McQueary’s conflicting memories and inconsistencies in his stories.

Whatever you think of Joe Paterno, the man was a giant in the sports world for a half-century. I think, and Posnanski admits in a great passage near the end, that Paterno should’ve done a lot more when he first found out about Sandusky’s behavior, and because he didn’t, his legacy is permanently scarred.

Joe Paterno lived a hell of a full life, and Posnanski brings it to us. Is he a little too sympathetic to his subject? Probably. But this is a balanced, well-researched book that’s well worth your time.

  • Ben K

    A love story to a guy who protected a child predator for over a decade. A disgrace. Posnanski has lost all cred

    • Jim

      Pretty clearly not a “love story.” Read the book, then make an educated comment.

  • Keith Ryan Cartwright

    “…With just about every portrayal of Paterno’s life (his famous ego, his stubbornness, his feelings on race and politics), you can practically feel the author bending over backwards to show both sides…”

    I’m still working my way through the book, but, I think, given the elephant in the room, the Paterno family welcomes stories of his ego and stubbornness.

    It’s kind of like the old tactic of writing the story you really want and then adding something ridiculous, so your editor focuses on that and not another part he might have otherwise deleted. In this case, let me bendover backward to show you his imperfections because I’m not going to answer the questions everyone really wants answered.

    I’ll reserve judgment until I’m completely finished, but in spite of being a longtime Posnanski fan this wasn’t what I expected. Then again, I never expected the real story to end the way it did either.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life