‘Paterno’ Author Joe Posnanski Speaks at HUB
Alumni Hall at the HUB-Robeson Center was packed with students, alums, and State College community members on Friday afternoon for the latest installment of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism’s “Conversation Series.” Acclaimed writer Joe Posnanski, author of Paterno, made his only scheduled State College appearance, and shared in-depth, intimate details about his time with the late Penn State head coach — including his views concerning the Freeh Report and his critics.
The event, narrated by Curley Center knight chair and Penn State journalism professor Malcolm Moran, began with Posnanski describing how he came to write the definitive biography of Joe Paterno’s life. Paterno originally nixed the idea of the book on several occasions, but eventually gave Posnanski his blessing in November of 2010.
“Joe was the winningest coach, yet he never talked about winning,” Posnanski said of his interest in chronicling Paterno’s life.
The narrative direction of Posnanski’s book took an extreme turn on November 5 when the Grand Jury Presentment against Jerry Sandusky was released. A few days later, Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees and the eye of the nation was focused on the mayhem in Happy Valley, and everything Posnanski did was put under a microscope.
“It moved so quickly and no one really knew what was going on,” Posnanski said. “With this story, I don’t know if you could ever get your arms around this.”
One of the most explosive stories in recent memory was taking place, and Posnanski was right in the middle of it all, with a unique look from inside of the Paterno home. He said that he originally planned to gather information for the book until March, but upon Paterno’s death on January 22, he felt that would be pointless.
“I was going to write about Joe Paterno’s life — from when he was born to when he died,” Posnanski said. ”I didn’t wait for [the Curley/Schultz trial] to publish the book, because his life was over. This is a book about his life.”
With such public outrage against both Penn State and the Paterno name, Posnanski was on the receiving end of some criticism as well. Would his book just be a defense of Joe Paterno? He realized he needed to block out outsider’s views and write the “truth.”
“Everything people say about me– good and bad– doesn’t matter. It didn’t help me write the book,” Posnanski said, emphasizing his hope that people would decide for themselves how they felt about the situation.
“The heightened sense of cynicism is enormous. It was never going to be a love letter to Joe Paterno.”
Posnanski addressed the timing of the book’s release. Why didn’t he wait until more evidence came out? Why didn’t he wait until he could look back at the situation with more perspective?
“Nobody waited,” Posnanski said succinctly. “The Freeh Report didn’t wait. Nobody asked the Freeh Report people why they didn’t wait.”
“I didn’t wait because [Paterno's] life was over– I wrote a book about [Paterno's] life. [Paterno's] words needed to be a part of the conversation. For the last 9 months we’ve watched a one-way conversation, that tells me the timing of the book was important,” said Posnanski.
Posnanski, a long time writer for the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated, gave his thoughts on the Freeh Report, which came to multiple conclusions that Paterno along with several top Penn State administrators were complicit in concealing Sandusky’s horrible acts of child abuse.
Posnanski criticized journalists who have referred to the Report as “exhaustive,” despite the fact that the Freeh group failed to interview several key figures involved with the whole ordeal.
“That [the Freeh Report] has been accepted as the last word is a travesty,” Posnanski said. “It’s like saying you wrote an exhaustive book on The Beatles without talking to any of The Beatles.”
In regards to the media’s coverage of the scandal, Posnanski said that there’s been “a narrative going one way,” but also noted that there has been some great, balanced work as well and the tone of the conversation is beginning to change.
“I think people are listening a little more,” he said.
Despite the criticism and vitriol surrounding Paterno, Posnanski’s book debuted at number one on the New York Times, best-seller list, after the Times was critical of the book and timing of its release in the first place. People have asked Posnanski what his next book will be, and he jokingly responds with “easier.”
In any case, it was fascinating to hear from a man who was in the room with Paterno during his darkest days more than anybody but his family. Posnanski said when it was clear that the end was near, he sat in Paterno’s hospital room one-on-one, just talking. That unprecedented access is prominently reflected in the 402 pages of Paterno.
- Posnanski noted that after November 5, it was much tougher to conduct his interviews, because everyone was hesitant to say anything positive about Paterno. “Rightfully so,” he added.
- Posnanski said that he obtained the supposedly damning emails from the Freeh report a few weeks before the report was released.
- At a time when Paterno was in the hospital, a family member called Posnanski. Posnanski went to the Paterno home and Sue Paterno was waiting there to give him 20 years worth of her husband’s files, at his request.
- Posnanski said that Paterno regretted the way he handled the now-infamous 2004 incident when Graham Spanier came to the coach’s home to suggest retirement.
- The author said that Paterno would be “so angry” about the sanctions and that Paterno would be upset that “the University didn’t fight back.”
- The trials of Gary Schultz and Tim Curley in January will be “very interesting” to Posnanski.