The Six Things You Should Know About Joe Posnanski's Paterno BookS

Joe Posnanski has written a mostly sympathetic biography of Joe Paterno, which shouldn't be a surprise, given some of Posnanski's previous statements. It's a book at war with itself. At its best, it's a clear-eyed biography of a guy who became a cautionary tale about the dangers of mythmaking; at its worst, the biography is the culmination of that very same process of mythmaking.

There are several takeaways:

1. Paterno says he "would have gone to the police right then and there" had he known Jerry Sandusky raped a boy.

On the morning of Feb. 10, 2001, Paterno was told by then Penn State graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary that McQueary had seen Jerry Sandusky alone in the university's football building shower the night before. The grand jury presentment that charged Sandusky indicated that McQueary had "heard rhythmic, slapping sounds," and that the boy was "being subjected to anal intercourse" by Sandusky. [Update: Sandusky was found not guilty on the charge of raping the boy McQueary saw him with. I address this down in the discussion here.]

McQueary, however, has since admitted under oath that, "out of respect," he had stopped short of describing anal rape in his conversation with Paterno. In the book, Posnanski shares the Q&A he had with Paterno in late November 2011—several weeks after the grand jury report was released—about the McQueary incident. Paterno indicates that McQueary had been vague. Posnanski writes this paragraph:

Paterno would later say that if McQueary had told him he saw Sandusky raping a young boy, "We would have gone to the police right then and there, no questions asked." 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.

But how vague could McQueary have been? It's true that Paterno did not mention rape when he testified before the grand jury in January 2011. But he did testify that McQueary had told him he had seen something of "a sexual nature." Vague or not, Paterno understood enough of McQueary's story to know that something sexual had happened in the showers. Posnanski will later reference Paterno's "sexual nature" phrase, but at this point in the narrative he needlessly obfuscates, suggesting more confusion on Paterno's part than the coach himself acknowledged under oath.

Similarly, there is no mention of the grand-jury testimony of Gary Schultz, the former Penn State senior vice president for business and finance who is being tried for perjury and failure to report abuse. Days after his conversation with McQueary, Paterno met with Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley. Schultz's impression from that conversation with Paterno, according to his testimony, was that someone had witnessed something "disturbing," "inappropriate," and that "maybe Jerry might have grabbed the young boy's genitals or something of that sort," suggesting again that Paterno understood immediately that something sexual had happened. But Posnanski goes out of his way to cloud the issue, insisting again and again that Paterno had gotten nothing from McQueary but a "vague" story, "the agitated recollections of an assistant coach," chalking it up grandly to "that foggy world of memory and perspective." We're still in "single, hazy event" territory.

2. A Paterno confidante says a younger Paterno might have followed up on the Sandusky allegations.

The lingering question, given what Paterno knew, is why he wasn't more vigorous in making sure something was done about Sandusky. Paterno acknowledges to Posnanski that he didn't follow up with Tim Curley after first informing the athletic director of what McQueary had told him. ("No," he tells Posnanski. "I trusted Tim.") As Posnanski explains it, even some members of the Paterno family and their close friends wonder why the old man didn't do more after that. Then Posnanski talks to "one of the people in [Paterno's] inner circle":

"But, to be honest, that's just not how Joe was in the last years. He was not vigilant like he used to be. I think a younger Joe would have said to Tim after a few days, 'Hey, what's going on with that Sandusky thing? You guys get to the bottom of that? Let's make sure that's taken care of.' But he didn't understand it. And he just wasn't involved as he used to be."

Of course, after Paterno's death, an email surfaced that indicates Paterno was either aware of or that he actively encouraged university officials not to report Sandusky to child welfare authorities. That email was included in the Freeh report, and Posnanski references it in the very next paragraph, adding that "many would believe he was involved in a Penn State cover-up. Paterno did not deny his own ineffectiveness—he spoke about it with deep regret—but he strongly denied any ill intent."

3. Paterno apparently disliked Sandusky so much he wouldn't turn him in to the cops. Or something like that.

This is a constant theme of an entire chapter devoted to Paterno's and Sandusky's working relationship through the years. Their personalities clashed. They argued frequently. Publicly, Paterno said all the right things about Sandusky's charity, The Second Mile. But Paterno was not among those Sandusky thanked for helping to build the foundation. Paterno began looking for ways to ease Sandusky out before the '98 investigation even happened, though he admitted he never wanted to fire him. Posnanski makes a solid case that Sandusky was not forced out because of the '98 allegation. When Sandusky stepped down, Paterno barely addressed his longtime assistant's departure publicly. He left Sandusky's retirement party early.

Posnanski returns to the theme of Paterno's dislike of Sandusky to justify Paterno's failure to go to the police after the McQueary incident. Paterno was too noble, Posnanski comes perilously close to arguing:

This must be said again: Paterno did not like Sandusky. […] Paterno did not feel like he should be involved for another reason: He knew that many fans and people in State College viewed Sandusky as the guy who should be coaching Penn State; he did not feel that he was in a position to get involved. He tried to make this clear to the grand jury: "Obviously, I was in a little bit of a dilemma since Mr. Sandusky was not working for me anymore." This reticence to publicly charge his former assistant and possible rival with molesting a child based on the agitated recollections of an assistant coach was something he had trouble explaining. He had gone by the book, word for word. He reported the conversation to Curley. This was what the law required him to do, and he did it. The Freeh report—and the public—concluded that it was not nearly enough.

That was Posnanski's conclusion as well.

4. Paterno denied knowing anything about the 1998 police investigation of Jerry Sandusky.

The '98 inquiry lasted several weeks and resulted in a 100-page police report, though Sandusky was not charged at the time. Posnanski writes that when he asked Paterno about it, he got basically the same denial that Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post did in the infamous "rape and a man" interview. But Posnanski acknowledges that "the truth is cloudier than that," since emails included in the Freeh report seem to indicate otherwise, even if they don't say exactly what Paterno was told directly. Posnanski also points out that Paterno's "detailed and pointed notes" at the time do not mention any investigation.

5. "You take care of your playground, and I'll take care of mine."

In 2004, after a 4-7 season, top Penn State officials tried to get Paterno to make 2005 his final season. The tale of how Paterno held on is often cited as an example of the coach's outsize role and power at the university. The account published on Christmas Day 2005 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the officials—including university president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley—had proposed to Paterno that he retire.

Posnanski's book says the meeting, which took place at Paterno's home, actually went a step further: Spanier "cleared his throat" and told Paterno he was going to recommend to the board of trustees that 2005 be Paterno's final season. To which Posnanski adds:

"At the end of his life, Paterno said, as if asking for forgiveness, 'I have a temper. I shouldn't have said what I said, but I was very angry. I had thought he came over to talk. But he already had made up his mind what he was going to do.'

Paterno put both hands on the table, looked Graham Spanier in the eye, and growled, 'You take care of your playground, and I'll take care of mine.'"

Posnanski writes that Paterno regretted making this story public after Penn State rebounded the following season. The book also says the board then began to distance itself from Paterno after that.

6. Paterno denied his involvement in Sandusky's retirement negotiations. Posnanski doesn't mention that Paterno had negotiated an exit package of his own.

Posnanski writes the following about the benefits package Sandusky received from Penn State once his retirement took effect after the 1999 season:

Paterno was not directly involved in the negotiations, and he would say at the end of his life that he was opposed to allowing Sandusky access to the football program, simply because he did not want the potential for distraction. When I told Paterno that people would find it hard to believe that he could not have influenced Sandusky's retirement package, he said, "People like to give me too much power. That's Tim's department. I told Tim how I felt. He worked out the deal as he saw fit."

The findings of the Freeh report include a document that shows Sandusky's typewritten retirement requests marked up with Paterno's handwritten responses, including a check mark next to Sandusky's request for access to workout and training facilities. [Update: As a commenter noted, Paterno's handwritten notes also include some scribblings asking whether Sandusky's facilities access would include Second Mile kids, which Paterno does not want to permit because of "liability problems." In other words, Paterno had enough input on Sandusky's retirement package in May 1999 to know Sandusky bringing Second Mile kids into the building could be an issue for Penn State.]

Similarly, Posnanski writes about Paterno's announcement, after the scandal broke, of his intention to retire at the end of the season—which at the time looked as if he were falling on his sword. The day after that, the trustees fired Paterno effective immediately, seemingly robbing the old coach of the chance to make his own magnanimous self-sacrifice.

Since then, we've come to learn that Paterno's announcement was hollow: He had already agreed to retire after the 2011 season, and he had begun negotiating his lucrative retirement package all the way back in January of that year—the same month he testified before the grand jury investigating Sandusky.