Book Review: Paterno
Joe let them on the field because he didn’t feel like the Marine Corps wanted to steal anything he was doing. So afterward, we go down to Herlocher’s – which was the only bar in town that served Heineken, by the way – and these were all former drill instructors. One of them was from Parris Island, and he says, ‘You know, Don, if we did half of the stuff that Joe just did to you, we’d be court-martialed.’ And this is the marines. That’s how vicious Joe was.
The coaches would walk around with wiffle-ball bats and hit you in the head if you lifted your head on a block. … And then Joe had this thing that someone invented that was this long steel pipe that had kind of a tripod on the end. And you would stand right under the tripod, and they would take this metal perpendicular pipe and put a punching bag on it. And they had a spring connected to it, stretch it, and they would hit a button and this thing would come down and you had to block it. They first had two springs on it, and it knocked out the first two guys, so they had to take one of the springs off. Who comes up with this? The Marquis de Sade?
The hamartia of the book Paterno, Joe Posnanski’s recent biography of the longtime Nittany Lions coach, is that Posnanski went looking for a legend and a hero, Saint Joe, a man apart from the typical football coach mold. The man in Paterno is instead just that, a man. Yes, a man who coached football, a man who was pretty good at coaching football, but still a man who coached football. This was apparent by the early 2000’s, when Joe’s teams weren’t winning nearly as often as they used to, and when a man who’d preached things like class and respect instead turned inward, restricting access to all outsiders, including media and NFL scouts, and retreating to the world of coaching, even losing time for recruiting, a task where he’d once excelled. It was this old man, this man who coached football and couldn’t, didn’t want to see himself doing anything else, that faced down a threat to force him out by one of his nominal bosses because he wasn’t yet ready to go.
The quote at the start of this review comes from a passage toward the end of Paterno, where a man named Don Abbey who played for Joe in his early days as head coach is talking about his experiences. This passage crystallized for me an increasingly strong feeling I had while reading the book, that Paterno the man who coached football was much more like the Daddy D of Meat on the Hoof than any sort of Saint Joe. He recruited players by talking about how good they weren’t, and what they were going to do after they stopped playing football, and he knew their parents’ names, their siblings’ names, maybe their dog and their girlfriends’ names. Once they got to campus, though, the players’ names had been forgotten, and they’d instead become #53 or #27 or “blond hair.” And what of it? Winning football, excellent football as much as successful football, was the way character was built, or at least Joe Paterno acted like he believed that, and passed that lesson to his Meat.
Nothing is more emblematic of Posnanski’s problem in trying to write about a hero instead of a man who coached football than the issue that’s dominated Penn State headlines since last November, Jerry Sandusky. Posnanski talked extensively to Paterno and his family; Paterno is an authorized biography in everything but name, and Posnanski was virtually the only reporter Paterno talked from after the scandal broke until his death. The story thus appears from the eye of this reader excessively favorable to Paterno; Joe simply didn’t know, and he was fooled like many others. Though Paterno was just published last month, there’s a lead time involved in writing a book, and Posnanski didn’t, couldn’t know everything that’s come out since last November, like how Sandusky drew the attention of Penn State authority for sexual conduct with children in 1998. Paterno’s denials, faithfully reported by Posnanski, ring terribly, horribly false; do we think he could support a man who hurt children, Paterno asks at one point? Well, by the account in Paterno, Sandusky was a bad coach who after 1986 grew uninterested in the hard work of coaching and was a man Paterno personally despised yet hired anyway and refused to fire. I’m not sure how that squares with excellent football and developing character; perhaps it’s a lesson to the players, many of whom even on the underachieving 1999 team like Sandusky, that the real world isn’t as noble as you want it to be.
Those of you for whom Paterno was the king of kings, well, you have my sympathies. The death of your heroes is never a happy thing. Worse, though, is pretending your heroes are still alive when they’re quite clearly dead. The rest of us just see those two vast and trunkless legs of stone, and realize the aftermath of the Joe Paterno era of Penn State is the worst NCAA sanctions in a quarter-century, all because of the actions and inactions of not a saint, but just a man who coached football.