Joe Posnanski’s first book was The Soul of Baseball, the tale of a road trip with the charming, nonagenarian Negro League star Buck O’Neil. His second was a fun-loving romp with the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s, baseball’s Big Red Machine. In March 2011, Posnanski announced to the devoted readers of his excellent blog that he would be writing a third. “This time around,” he said, “I really wanted to go for everything, I wanted to take on the project of my life, something that would get at how I feel about sports and life and competition and fairness and unfairness and the world around us.”
The subject: Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Posnanski didn’t hide his reverence for the gruff, diminutive coach in rolled-up khakis and oversized black glasses. He said in the blog post that he was a “huge fan and admirer of Joe’s”—he referenced the flattering stories he had written about the coach—and “endlessly fascinated by him and his lifelong quest to do something large, to impact America, through football.” In his proposal, Posnanski said the book would be “the most amazing football story ever told.” Simon & Schuster paid a reported $750,000 to publish it.
The then-Sports Illustrated writer moved to State College, Pa., to follow the eightysomething Paterno during what was likely to be the final season of a six-decade-long career, and what turned out to be the final months of his life. Posnanski was granted access to Paterno and his program, his family, and his personal papers. If the writer viewed the coach as one of the last heroic figures in sports, Paterno must have seen Posnanski as the rare reporter he could trust in a business he had long disdained. It was a good marriage: Posnanski liked writing positive stories about good people, and Paterno liked talking about the good he had accomplished.
I don’t think Posnanski is so naive that he would cling to a romantic ideal of a subject who turned out to more complicated than advertised—he might be the least cynical major sportswriter alive, but he isn’t stupid. And I don’t think Paterno or his family and friends were devious enough, or skilled enough, to orchestrate a campaign to manipulate the coach’s Boswell, before or after the horrific charges of child molestation against Paterno’s longtime defensive lieutenant, Jerry Sandusky. So why, then, does Paterno read like a one-source story, a writer’s attempt to prop up the Potemkin village of his subject’s life?
Paterno has been savaged by some reviewers, including JoePa’s hometown paper, mainly because Posnanski doesn’t seem to try to report or explain the Sandusky story beyond what he witnessed and was told by Paterno and his inner circle. Posnanski allows the coach’s associates to make a range of excuses for Paterno’s failure to more assertively pursue direct reports, including one from a young assistant coach, Mike McQueary, that Sandusky had showered with boys and engaged in an act of “a sexual nature” with one of them in Penn State’s football building in 1998 and 2001: He followed university guidelines, he was duped like everyone else, he was old and less in touch, he had other things on his mind. Posnanski reports this profoundly sad exchange between Paterno and his son Scott after the grand jury presentment against Sandusky was issued last November:
“Dad,” he asked his father again, “did you know anything about Sandusky?”
“Other than the thing Mike told me, no,” Joe answered.
“Nothing? No rumors? The coaches never talked about it?”
“No. I don’t listen to rumors. Nothing.”
“Dad, this is really important. If there is anything you heard ...”
“I didn’t hear anything, why are you badgering me? What do I know about Jerry Sandusky? I’ve got Nebraska to think about, I can’t worry about this.” Nebraska was the next game.
For the sake of history, it’s good that Posnanski was admitted to the coach’s inner sanctum. What’s missing from Paterno, though, is a rigorous examination of the other side of the story. In one instance, Posnanski uses anonymous quotes to discredit a former Penn State administrator named Vicky Triponey, with whom Paterno clashed over player discipline. The author lets one embittered player call Triponey “that woman,” but makes no apparent effort to interview her. Of Paterno’s firing by Penn State’s board of trustees, Posnanski writes: “Why and how the board made its decision is not my story to tell.”