Joe Posnanski has been around the block, as an old-school newspaper hack and a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, but even he had no idea what he was biting off last year when he convinced Joe Paterno's family to grant him unrestricted access for a deep, definitive biography of the venerable Penn State coach at the end of an exemplary career. The goal, Posnanski said, was an inspiring book that "will tell the remarkable story about a man who could have been anything but decided that the best way he could help change America was one college football player at a time." Instead, he had unwittingly stumbled backstage for the most dramatic, traumatic scandal in the history of American sports.
The resulting book, Paterno, is out later this month, and there is already some concern that Posnanski's tendency for feel-good reverence will gloss over the more disturbing aspects of JoePa's mini-empire in State College, particularly Paterno's role in ignoring or covering up multiple allegations of sexual abuse against his longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky. (In June, Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of sexually assaulting ten underage males over the course of more than a decade, several of them in Penn State facilities.) Today, we get the first glimpse of the finished product, courtesy of several brief excerpts in GQ.
In one scene, as public opinion begins to turn against Paterno in the days following Sandusky's arrest last November, Posnanski describes Paterno's icy relationship with Penn State's Board of Trustees through the perspective of the family's new PR specialist, Dan McGinn:
This is when McGinn learned just how far Paterno's influence and reputation had fallen. He asked [family adviser Guido] D'Elia for the name of one person on the Penn State board of trustees, just one, whom they could reach out to, to negotiate a gracious ending. D'Elia shook his head.
"One person on the board, that's all we need," McGinn said.
D'Elia shook his head again. "It began in 2004," he whispered, referring to an old clash Paterno had with [university president Graham] Spanier. "The board started to turn. We don't have anybody on the board now."
That's when McGinn realized that this was going to be the worst day of Joe Paterno's professional life.
Paterno responded on Nov. 9 by announcing his retirement, effective at the end of the season, which would have allowed him to remain on the sideline for the Nittany Lions' final three games – including the home finale against Nebraska on Nov. 12 – and a bowl game. "At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status," Paterno said in a statement. "They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can." The same night, the board voted unanimously to fire Paterno and Spanier, effective immediately.
The excerpts also describe (briefly) the initial reaction of Paterno's son, Scott, to the Pennsylvania Attorney General's indictment of Sandusky on Nov. 5, when he called his father and said, "Dad, you have to face the possibility that you will never coach another game." The day after he was fired, Paterno "sobbed uncontrollably" when meeting with coaches at his house and "cried continually" throughout the day, with reporters camped outside his door. "My name," Paterno told his other son, Jay, "I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it's gone."
A longer excerpt appears in print editions of the September GQ, and will be published on the magazine's website next week, on Aug. 20. Posnanski's book is scheduled to hit shelves on Aug. 21.