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Thursday, August 23, 2012

PATERNO by Joe Posnanski - A Book Review


Lulu pre-ordered the book Paterno by Joe Posnanski from Amazon. For $14 it would be delivered over the airwaves on August 21st - its release date. We woke up early that morning and the electronic file arrived as promised. This would be the first time I would read a book - cover to cover - on the Kindle. I think it is the first book I have bought on the release date except maybe for maybe Howard Stern's book  - and /or Bill Clinton's book that I bought in large print.

It is hard for me to review it as a critic of the writer or the text - when I am reading from a Kindle. Like a middle school student - I am more interested in the tactile feel of reading a "real" book on a Kindle. Like a school kid or any other near-sided grayhead - life exists just two feet away from my eyes. So if I lapse to - the media is the message - theme. I find it ironic that I am reading this tome on a Kindle - and the book talks so much about email - etc. The main character - Joe Paterno - an English major from Ivy League Brown University - refused to have an email account. He may have just been an aging Luddite or he was shrewd enough to realize that emails are like recorded phone calls - public record - and they can be used in court.

The book starts by reviewing Joe's upbringing in Brooklyn - his early leadership qualities - inspired by second generation immigrant parents. After years of watching a very old - almost crippled - man laboring on the sidelines at Beaver Stadium - I am amazed at what a young healthy excellent student and athlete Joe was. Young Joe was a driven man. He wanted to be a lawyer - like his Dad - but a few  twists of fate sent him on a tangent to Happy Valley. 

It is funny what things stick in your mind - usually stuff that seems similar to things you have done. When Joe met his wife Sue - she was a Penn State freshman of 18. He was about 30 years old. I keep thinking of the time I met Lulu and we married a couple weeks short of her 17th birthday. I was 23 when that happened - a teacher in a different school district when then - it was still a scandal. When Joe and Sue proposed marriage to her parents at a restaurant dinner - Sue's Mom - a teetotaler - ordered a Whiskey Sour. She then took her daughter to the ladies room and convinced her that instead of marrying 3 weeks later - they would wait until she graduated in a few months hence.

Although Joe died a multi-millionaire - he spent his first 10 years at State College living in another married coach's basement. When the guy finally threw Joe out saying he was there 10 years - Joe incredulously replied - "Have I been here that long?" 

I was surprised how single-minded Joe was early in his career. I did not think Joe was such a "my way or the highway" type of guy. I could not believe how such a successful man could be so argumentative. I remember my superintendent asking ME why I was so disagreeable. It is not an attitude that usually breeds success.

One time - Joe and the Nits were playing for the national championship in the Super Dome. Penn State had the ball on the one yard line. Joe decided to run the same play up the middle - 4 times. My teacher friend Jim Szczecina who was at the game said - just plain thick-headed. Another teacher friend Joe Ligenza explained it better. He said - Hunky Logic. If you lived in the Coal Regions you would understand.

Simply - Joe was a very successful coach and motivator of football players. He won a lot of football games - like most coaches - it was helped by innovative scheduling just as most other coaches do. For years he had undefeated teams - but he did not get the recognition he thought he deserved because he seldom played ranked teams. 

I must admit prejudice - because I served 33 years in a school classroom and faculty room full of Penn State fans. My wife graduated from Florida State University and we "worshipped" another sport deity - Bobby Bowden. This was akin to a Jew coming to the Coal Regions and insisting that a Menorah be placed in city hall with the Nativity scene. Although Bobby and Joe were great friends and competed with class to be the winningest coach in college football - their fans would never accept them both as great. Like Joe - the fans were "my way or the highway" in their attitude. Joe was the reactionary - old time uniforms - short haircuts - and a dictatorship. Although Bobby was an ordained Baptist minister - he let his players wear longhair - wear fancy uniforms - and throw the ball all over the place. Joe was three yards and a cloud of dust - Bobby was punt-rooskie. So this flavors anything I say about Joe Paterno.

I was also surprised at how much the book claimed that Joe disliked Jerry Sandusky - his defensive co-ordinator. Joe liked discipline - super-organized practices. Jerry like goofing around - breaking up meetings with jokes - and back slapping - hugging - etc. Joe's public personality bordered on arrogance - self-righteousness - and crankiness. Those attitudes were tolerated because Joe was winning. 

One of the reasons why many folks seemed to enjoy Penn State getting its comeuppance was that many Penn State fans took on Joe's attitude that they were better than the rest of college football. When Ohio State was put on probation because a few players traded jerseys for tattoos - or Southern Cal boosters bought Reggie Bush a car - or several FSU players were caught cheating on an online music test - Penn State fans would turn their noses up  saying they would never do anything like that. You can imagine other fans' reactions when they found a practicing pedophile in the Penn State football locker room - just like when a homecoming queen gets knocked up.

On the other hand - when I first moved to Florida - I would write that Joe was too old to coach but Bobby wasn't. But more and more people would comment when I told them I taught in Pennsylvania for 33 years - how much they admired Penn State and Joe for doing things the right way. People seemed to love Penn State football and Joe like they admired Duke Basketball and Coach K. So like  a chameleon - I would smile and accept the compliment. 

I only mention these personal items to give you the prejudice I have.

The book emphasizes that Joe was a great man - a hero - with flaws. He may have been so focused on winning the right way - that he convinced himself that he could do things to protect the program that were right because they protected the big picture.

To me - the key to the demise was 1998 and 1999 and 2001. 

1998 - Sandusky was accused by a parent of showering with her son. She brought it to the attention of the police. President Spanier and his subordinates decided to notify child welfare - as required by law. He received an email showing that this solution was sidetracked because Joe wanted to deal with it internally. Email - the thing Joe disdained - left a permanent record - just like recorded phone calls doomed Richard Nixon. This answers the question - what did Joe know and when did he know it. He knew Sandusky had a problem in 1998. He brushed it aside - not because he liked Jerry. The opposite was true. He disliked Jerry - but the scandal would be enough to kill "the program."

1999 - Joe tried to make the problem go away. He told Jerry that he would not be the next head coach. They offered Sandusky cash and honor to leave. This solution was not uncommon then. Many times employees or professors in trouble were offered silence if they resigned.

2001 - Jerry -  the problem was supposed to be gone. Then - an Asst Coach caught him showering with boys again. When the Asst Coach told Joe - Joe was really angry. He realized that since he knew about 1998 and did very little - this time it would bring down the house. He was right. Ol' man's man Jerry would bring down the house of cards. 

There is the possibility that Joe did not realize that 1998 was that serious and with senility it was blocked from his mind. As Joe himself said - in hindsight - I wish I did more. 

In the book - when Joe is questioned about why he did not do more -  he screams that "I am not omniscient!" The book also said he asks his son Jay "What is sodomy anyway?" 

I find it hard to believe that a person that is an English major and uses omniscient in regular speech - did not know what sodomy meant. I do not know if this is a reflection on Joe or me - but I just had to look up "omniscient" - I did not have to look up "sodomy."

Joe Posnanski - the author - was in the right place at the right time. I think that Paterno realized early that trouble was ahead. Coach really thought it might be his last year and he wanted someone to chronicle his last season - a season Joe really expected to be a success. Posnanaski tried to write the book right down the middle. It was a difficult task especially with the author being there the whole time and witnessing Joe's death.

I do think there is much more to be revealed. It will come out in the trials of vice president and athletic director. As I type - President Spanier is already releasing stuff to the press. He is trying to taint a potential jury because he expects to get indicted before this is over. The three of them will be blaming each other - and dead men tell no tales.

I think Joe was a wonderful man that did so much good for so many people. It is a shame that so many people are left to pay for the mistake that Joe made at Penn State. Students - football players - businesses - communities - are all paying the price for something they did not do. They are left holding the bag defending their honor - when they did nothing wrong except being overzealous and worshipping a false god like most football fans do.

Joe did the many  things for the right reasons. He was a bit of a fibber when he said he didn't care about the record for most wins and that he was not ambitious. Ambition is not a bad thing. It is really ironic that Joe loved to read and quote Shakespeare so much - then his own life ended in such a tragedy. Shakespeare could not have written it better - or worse.

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