There is a scene early in the new biography of Joe Paterno in which, at the height of the recent scandal at Penn State, Guido D'Elia, the former football marketing director for the Nittany Lions, struggles to come to grips with the coach's failure to pursue a credible report that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted a young boy in the showers of the football building in February 2001. Paterno had done nothing more than inform athletic director Tim Curley, who likewise did not notify police.
"Why didn't [Paterno] follow up?" an emotional D'Elia asks author Joe Posnanski. "Find the answer to that, and you have the story."
That answer, frustratingly, is nowhere to be found in the 373 richly detailed pages of Paterno. Posnanski, a former senior writer for SI, is a skilled and stylish storyteller, and he soberly traces Paterno's path from the streets of Brooklyn to the pastures of Happy Valley. The author had almost unfettered access to Paterno, his personal notes and his family throughout the scandal that ended the coach's 45-year tenure at Penn State and right up to his death from lung cancer at the age of 85 on Jan. 22.
Paterno was announced in March 2011 as a book about "America's winningest college football coach, who changed the country one football player at a time," and was scheduled to be released for Father's Day 2013. After the scandal broke last November, Simon & Schuster moved up publication to Aug. 21. This cannot have helped Posnanski, whose regret at being forced to write a much different book is palpable on almost every page. Contrast his moving re-creation of the Nittany Lions' undefeated 1973 season—when running back John Cappelletti dedicated his Heisman Trophy to his leukemia-stricken younger brother, Joey—with the fleeting references to the report on the scandal issued in July by former FBI director Louis Freeh. Save for Posnanski's tantalizing revelation that Paterno and Sandusky did not like each other, there is very little new here.
The press materials for Paterno liken the book to Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio and to David Maraniss's towering biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, two clear-eyed portraits of iconic American sports figures. And it is a legitimate comparison as far as it goes.
But neither of those books was written at the white-hot center of the worst scandal in the history of American sports. And the ugliest transgressions of Lombardi and DiMaggio do not approach Paterno's failure to confront the evil within his program. Given Posnanski's inside perspective—one that no other journalist in America had—he needed to answer D'Elia's question. With more time to report and reflect, he might have done just that.