Book review: ‘Paterno’ presents the former coach as human, not ‘good’ or ‘bad’

By Adam Bittner

In the opening pages of Joe Posnanski’s biography of Joe Paterno (“Paterno”), the writer reveals the late coach “admired” U.S. Army General George S. Patton, who led his forces to heroic victories against Nazi Germany from North Africa to Europe during World War II.

Patton was one of the most celebrated, yet controversial men of his time. His daring leadership earned him the admiration of his men and many in the American public during the war, but his temper made him a complicated figure. He once slapped and kicked a shell-shocked soldier in Sicily because he believed the man might be dodging his duty.

Posnanski writes that Paterno particularly loved a line from a 1944 speech, delivered by Patton to troops before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France and famously portrayed by actor George C. Scott in the opening scene of the 1970 film “Patton.”

“An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team,” Patton said. That’s the part Posnanski included in the book. The rest of the quote?

“This individual heroic stuff is pure horse s—t. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about f—ing!”

At a time when fierce criticism of the way Paterno handled reports of child sex abuse involving Jerry Sandusky is clashing with staunch defenses of the coach, Posnanski’s decision to link these two men early and throughout his book is brilliant.

As much as some on both sides of the debate over Paterno’s legacy might hope he’ll be remembered as some type of cartoon character — a moustache-curling villain to some and a close cousin of the Archangel Gabriel to others — Posnanski signals his intention early to write of Paterno’s humanity, and it’s a theme he wisely sticks to throughout the book.

He writes of the coach’s well-documented contributions to the Penn State community. Vignettes with former players capture every emotion they felt about the coach, from deep resentment to unwavering appreciation.

Posnanski also sheds light on some of Paterno’s deepest insecurities: failing to live up to his father Angelo’s expectations, dying shortly after retiring from coaching like former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and failing to intervene in Sandusky’s abuse.

At one point, Paterno asks Posnanski what he thinks of “all this” — Paterno’s role in the Sandusky case. Posnanski tells Paterno he thought he should have done. Paterno tells his biographer, “I wish I had done more.”

This moment, which Posnanski said he included because he thought it was “important,” really crystallizes the image of Paterno that the writer is trying to project, one that sees Paterno not as “good” or “bad,” but human.

Those looking to this book for a wealth of new information about what Paterno knew about Sandusky’s crimes and when will be disappointed. Posnanski offers a gripping view of how Paterno and those close to him handled the media firestorm in the wake of Sandusky’s indictment, though few fresh facts pertinent to the case pop up.

Those hoping the work will reinforce a polarized point of view of Paterno will probably find little value here, too. It’s likely that’s why many reviews of the book to this point have been lukewarm (The Atlantic calls it “a relentless, failed defense,” while the New York Times says it’s “breezy and largely sympathetic).

But the way Posnanski highlights both Paterno’s strengths and flaws, much in the way “Patton” shows the good and the bad of the legendary commander, gives the book a chance to stand the test of time and become the authority on the man’s life when the rabble-rousing and sanctimony coming from both sides fades away.

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