A tragedy for the ages

Joe Paterno’s epic demise dwarfs the stature of a new biography
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I don’t think anybody can get a handle on what makes me tick… without understanding what I learned from the deep relationship I formed with Virgil,” wrote the late Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno in his 1997 autobiography, “Paterno: By the Book.” The remark refers without irony to the affinity he felt for the Greco-​Roman hero Aeneas, one of the boldest and luckiest characters in classical mythology and the subject of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” which Paterno had translated in high school.

And why not? When Paterno wrote those words 15 years ago, he was at the top of his game, the embodiment of the spirit of University Park, revered as one of the winningest coaches in college football history, and “sainted” for his refusal of a million-​dollar job in the pros. His “solemn sense of purpose” and his warrior spirit had transported him from a hardscrabble upbringing in Brooklyn to the Ivy League and thence to the sanctuary of the Happy Valley, where he enjoyed fame, fortune and respect amounting to idolatry. He had only to be anointed with ambrosia and nectar to achieve immortality like Aeneas, the celebrated Trojan spared in battle in order to fulfill his destiny as the founder of ancient Rome. But Paterno couldn’t possibly know in ’97 just how closely his life would imitate the dramas of antiquity when the Penn State scandal of 2011 culminated in his dismissal, dishonor and death.

The heavy dose of determinism in Paterno’s story — spared from a career at the bar in order to establish a football empire; his transformation into an idol with feet of clay; and his sudden, calamitous fall from grace at the eleventh hour in his life — suggests an epic morality tale worthy of Sophocles or Aeschylus; a story, alas, that proves too big, too emotionally charged, and just too close to home for sportswriter Joe Posnanski, author of Simon & Schuster’s recent biographical release, “Paterno.”

Posnanski, who has won several national awards for his writing for The Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated magazine, does a decent job of conveying the mounting tensions and despair surrounding Paterno in his final days, but he is no tragedian. He is at his best when describing PSU’s game-​changing wins and losses, but is ill-​equipped to place the particulars of Paterno’s life in the context of hubris and human frailty that might have resulted in a more enduring work.

Like Paterno, Posnanski found himself blindsided by circumstance when what seemed like a dream assignment — penning a hagiography of the beloved Joe Pa — became a nightmare as the case unfolded against the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, “the second most famous coach in Pennsylvania,” who is now serving 3060 years in prison on 45 counts of sexual assault on young boys. The university’s apathetic response to and alleged cover-​up of Sandusky’s activity impugned all in the chain of accountability, but it was Head Coach Paterno, as the de facto symbol of Penn State, who suffered the greatest indignities: his proud record stripped of 111 wins; his larger-​than-​life statue removed from Beaver Stadium; his prestigious Gerald R. Ford Leadership Award revoked. Suddenly, the popular perception of an infallible icon required revision, and “Paterno” became a very different book than was originally intended.

Although the author insists that “this is not a defense of Joe Paterno,” it is most certainly an apology for the inadequacy of Paterno’s response to the verbal report he received on the abuse of a child in a PSU locker room in 2001. Having been given the cooperation of the Paterno family, Posnanski gives Joe Pa every benefit of the doubt. He makes a point of explaining that Paterno and Sandusky were not friends and barely tolerated each other; that Paterno’s attention understandably waned in the last decade of his 85 years; that his strict, almost corny code of conduct for his players indicated a naiveté that precluded understanding the true nature of Sandusky’s actions. (It was not until the media had surrounded his home, compelling him to read the full legal presentment of the crimes, that Paterno turned to his son Scott and asked, “What is sodomy, anyway?”)

It is clear that Posnanski himself admired Paterno and was deeply shaken by the spectacle of a role model maligned, discredited, hounded, confused, coughing, shrunken in stature, bereft of defenders and dying of lung cancer. But that does not excuse the absence of new information and genuine insight in what is supposed to be a definitive biography. Details of a 2004 confrontation between Paterno and PSU President Graham Spanier and his board of trustees over Paterno’s proposed retirement help to explain why Paterno was left without support from that quarter when heads began to roll. But familiar anecdotes of the “dago” snubbed by his preppy classmates at Brown, or the family man leading his children in prayer for Penn State’s victory on the field, have appeared in any number of previously published sources. Posnanski offers no particularly telling episodes from Paterno’s formative years (i.e. everything prior to coaching), nor produces the testimony of a single close friend.

In Posnanski’s defense, his subject was certainly less than forthcoming, conducting himself with the same tight-​lipped determination that was frequently interpreted as self-​righteousness. The only exception occurred in November 2011, following Paterno’s unceremonious firing from the university where he had coached for 61 years. On that stressful day, in an unguarded moment, the devastated former coach broke down briefly in the presence of his biographer. “My name,” he lamented, “I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it’s gone.” But by the next day the confidential mood had passed, and Paterno rallied and shifted his focus to gratitude for a blessed life and strong family, a position he resolutely maintained until his death two months later.

In Posnanski’s analysis, Paterno remains an idealist, a teacher and a molder of men, whose alleged “lack of leadership” allowed him to be made a scapegoat for the university. In such a scenario, the real tragedy of the Penn State scandal is that, for all his brilliant strategizing on the field, Paterno failed to foresee the consequences of his own inaction. In true classical form, his greatest weakness was inherent in his nature, and indistinguishable from his great strength: going by the book (as per the title of his autobiography) in a situation that required a broader moral interpretation. As for the neglected young victims of Sandusky’s crimes, their vulnerability and suffering are not contemplated at all. But one young woman, who was spotted weeping at the site of Paterno’s doomed statue following his dismissal, saw the bigger picture. When asked, “Why are you crying?” she replied, “Because everybody lost.” And there is no tragedy, in classical mythology or football, to top that.

Sandra Levis

Sandra is the literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly. Before entering magazine work, she was employed as an architectural historian for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a photographic historian for the Smithsonian Institution. She reads and writes at her home in Point Breeze.

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