Joe Posnanski is a terrific writer. He also happens to have terrible luck.
The former Sports Illustrated star, who currently writes for a new venture called Sports on Earth, has spent years working on an in-depth biography of the legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Posnanski reportedly snagged a $750,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for the project. And why shouldn’t he? When he inked his contract, Paterno was arguably the most famous and recognizable caller of collegiate X’s and O’s in the country. Even though it had been clear for some time that the gnomish, octogenarian’s best seasons were behind him, he was still “Joe Pa” — the trusted and revered shaper of young men whose strong moral code had always gone unquestioned. It seemed like an obvious best-seller. Plus, the author had attained extraordinary access to Paterno, his family, and his archives.
Then, just as the book was about to go to print, the unimaginable happened. One of the most respected figures in college athletics was suddenly swept up in a child molestation scandal allegedly perpetrated by one of his longtime assistants, Jerry Sandusky. Worse, the fatherly Paterno (who died from cancer in January) knew about the stomach-turning incidents and didn’t do as much as he could have — or should have — to see justice done. Just like that, Posnanski’s admiring biography had turned into something very different than the book he’d set out to write. The idol was now tarnished. He would have to push back his deadline, scramble like a quarterback staring down a blitz, and get to work on some serious revisions.
On page 10 of Paterno, Posnanski pauses to acknowledge the Sandusky scandal head-on. He writes: “This book is not a defense of Joe Paterno. It was not my intention to write such a book, and it was also not Paterno’s expectation for me to write such a book. The only thing he ever asked me to do is write the truth as I found it.”
And so Posnanski does over the next 360 pages. He admirably tries to make the best of the hand he’s been dealt. But man, is it a lousy hand. I suppose if you were inclined to see the glass half full, you might argue that the book now has “buzz.” There’s no doubt that it’s timely and on top of the news. A realist, on the other hand, would have to admit that Posnanski is now the biographer of a guy a lot of folks suddenly have an icky feeling about…and may not be jumping at the chance to cough up $28 bucks to be reminded of that ickiness.
Late in the book, Posnanski devotes a couple of substantial chapters to the Sandusky scandal. He’s forced to take a step back from his upbeat account of Paterno’s career and inject a note of skepticism — maybe the person he’s spent the preceding pages painting as a man of “character” didn’t show much of it when it mattered most. After all, how can someone whose career was built not just on wins, but also on commitment to values, fairness, and being a role model to his players, sit back and ignore such sickening allegations?
This is where Posnanski raises the difference between “legal” and “moral” guilt. Or, rather, he lets someone else raise it. Either way, it’s raised as it should be. Because it’s important to be clear about Paterno’s exact involvement in the Sandusky case. He did not commit these crimes or actively cover them up. But it does appear that he could have done more — that he could have followed up on the charges after they came to his attention instead of simply passing the buck up the chain of command on campus. A man who would have shown that kind of concern truly would have been a man worthy of a biography. And yet…
Maybe it’s unfair to spend so much time on the Sandusky scandal while discussing Posnanski’s otherwise-solid bio. In the end, it’s just a small fraction of the book. And fans of college football — Nittany Lion fans especially — will have plenty to dig into about Penn State’s undefeated seasons, bowl games, and anecdotes from past gridiron greats about their playing days in Happy Valley. But since we’ve already waded into these waters, it’s worth mentioning one other thing. Despite all of the man-hours Posnanski poured into his book and his unbelievable access to Paterno — the long heart-to-hearts with the ailing coach over his beloved handmade kitchen table — Posnanski doesn’t really unveil anything about the case that hasn’t been reported elsewhere. There are no scoops here. No “A-ha” moments. No dramatic, teary Barbara Walters-style confessions.
The closest the author comes to shedding new light on the matter is in his description of the tense relationship that existed between Paterno and Sandusky years before the scandal broke. Sandusky wanted to succeed Paterno as the next head coach of Penn State; Paterno never wanted to give up the reins. Sandusky was a teetotaler; Paterno, less so. Sandusky was distracted by his kids charity; Paterno was focused only on football. The two didn’t seem to like each other very much. Which makes it even stranger that Paterno would, essentially, help Sandusky wiggle off the hook.
Some might argue that Simon & Schuster should have held off on publishing Paterno until the Sandusky case and the stink emanating from Penn State blew over. I’m not sure I agree. Who knows how long that could take? A year? Five? A decade? Sometimes the only thing you can do is just hold your nose, get to work, and hope for the best. Just ask Joe Posnanski.