Rich Hofmann: Paterno bio is insightful and incomplete

Posted: August 21, 2012

NEAR THE END of his biography of Joe Paterno, author Joe Posnanski describes a scene at Paterno's kitchen table - after the firing as Penn State's football coach, after the diagnosis of lung cancer that so quickly ended his life. Sitting there, the old man has asked the writer what he really thinks. Posnanski parries. Paterno insists. And then Posnanski writes:

I told him that I thought he should have done more when he was told about Jerry Sandusky showering with a boy. I had heard what he said about not understanding the severity, not knowing much about child molestation, not having Sandusky as an employee. But, I said, "You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you."

He nodded. He did not try to defend or deflect. He simply said, "I wish I had done more," again, and then he descended into another coughing fit.

The book - I bought "Paterno" in a bookstore on Saturday, ahead of its Tuesday publication date - is not a prosecutor's brief against Paterno, and no one should have expected one. Neither, though, is it a full-throated defense. Given extraordinary access to the man, literally until his dying days, Posnanski does what Posnanski always has done best as a writer: context and texture. As everything around Paterno shook and then fell, you see a man and his family and his confidants at the epicenter.

Whether you like the portrait or not, and whether you can even definite it concisely - the best word here might be complicated - is beside the point. The truth is that it is a portrait very much in three dimensions. In that sense, Posnanski succeeds.

That isn't to say I agree with everything he wrote. For instance, I think he is unfair to assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed one of Sandusky's assaults on a boy in a university shower in 2001 and told Paterno about it the next day. McQueary has acknowledged not being able to graphically describe what he saw out of respect for the coach. But Paterno got the gist, certainly; he testified before a grand jury that what McQueary described was of "a sexual nature."

Yet Posnanski goes on at some length to highlight inconsistencies in what McQueary said during his various retellings of the story. And he concludes, "Whatever McQueary actually said that morning, Paterno heard something vague. He clearly did not want to think too much about it. He was seventy-five years old, from another time, and he would say he simply did not comprehend the potential gravity of the situation."

That's just wrong. Paterno did get it.

Under oath:

" . . . a sexual nature."

The other big issue is the emails unearthed during the Penn State investigation conducted by Louis Freeh. Two from 1998, written by athletic director Tim Curley, say that Paterno was aware of an ongoing investigation of an allegation against Sandusky from back then. A third email, from the 2001 incident witnessed by McQueary, suggests that, after a discussion with Paterno, a change was needed in the original plan to report Sandusky to the people in charge of his charity, The Second Mile, and also to child services.

(For the record, Paterno always denied knowing about 1998 and said he did what university policy required in 2001, notifying his superior. He said he never followed up on the matter.)

To me, the key is 1998. If Paterno did know about those allegations, as the Curley emails suggest, and he still did not act to alert authorities in 2001 (or even recommended against contacting authorities), it changes everything - and everybody knows it.

Posnanski makes a couple of passing references along the way but essentially deals with those 1998 emails in one paragraph in the middle of the book. It does not seem enough.

We all want answers, but the man died too quickly to provide them. He was gone before the key emails surfaced. As Posnanski writes, "If Paterno's life had been a novel, an editor would have insisted there be some time placed between Paterno's firing and the discovery of the cancer that would end his life. But it happened all at once in real life."

We are left with this book as the final record of the final days. It is more than that, obviously - it is the story of an extraordinary life - but it is most compelling as a chronicle of the end: the family working to convince Paterno of the gravity of the situation as Penn State trustees met to decide his fate; the day - but only one day - when Paterno sobbed uncontrollably after he was fired.

Posnanski writes that, as the scandal raged, Guido D'Elia - a Penn State marketing guy and longtime Paterno confidant - asked him a question:

"Why didn't he follow up?" D'Elia said. "Find the answer to that and you have the story."

If that is the standard, Posnanski failed. Then again, he never had a chance. He has added to the portrait of Joe Paterno but it seems destined to remain unfinished.

*************

We invite you to comment on this story by clicking here. Comments will be moderated.


Contact Rich Hofmann at hofmanr@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @theidlerich. Read his blog at philly.com/TheIdleRich, and for recent columns see philly.com/RichHofmann.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|