While family members and confidants saw the severity, Joe Paterno initially didn’t understand the magnitude of what was swirling around him last November following the release of the grand jury presentment that was used to indict Jerry Sandusky.
As his son Scott queried him on what he knew about Sandusky and the charges of child sexual abuse against the former Penn State defensive coordinator, Paterno said he knew little and was worried about the Nittany Lions’ next opponent.
That’s just one of the exchanges during the final days of the longtime coach’s career at Penn State that appear in the current issue of GQ Magazine from Joe Posnanski’s biography “Paterno.” The book, by the former Sports Illustrated writer, hits newsstands on Tuesday.
From the excerpts that appear in GQ, Posnanski paints a relatively sympathetic picture of the man that led Penn State for 46 seasons before being fired unceremoniously in a phone call by the university’s board of trustees.
He portrays Paterno, then 84, as an old man with a hearing problem that truly didn’t realize the turn his career, life and reputation was about to take.
Posnanski, who had been given access to Paterno for the 2011 season for the biography long before the Sandusky scandal mushroomed, got a lot more than he bargained for, especially that first week of November.
Posnanski gives the reader a look into the Paterno circle during a period that changed Penn State forever.
After reading the presentment, Scott Paterno understood how things could go for his father. In that presentment, Joe Paterno testified about a 2001 incident with Sandusky and a boy that was reported to him by then graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary.
“Dad,” (Scott) asked his father again, “did you know anything about Sandusky?”
“Other than the thing Mike told me, no,” Joe answered.
“Nothing? No rumors? The coaches never talked about it?”
“No, I don’t listen to rumors. Nothing.” “Dad, this is really important. If there is anything you heard ...”
“I didn’t hear anything, why are you badgering me? What do I know about Jerry Sandusky? I’ve got Nebraska to think about, I can’t worry about this.”
“I had to do everything I could to not cry right then,” Scott recalled.
Jay Paterno was on the road recruiting when he got the call from Scott. He asked, “How bad is it?” Scott said, “It’s worse than anything.” Jay sat in his car in an Ohio gas station and stared into the darkness.
Posnanski tells of how Paterno’s family and advisors had to beg him to read the presentment.
According to the excerpts, Guido D’Elia, a family advisor who also worked for the university, got through to Paterno.
“You realize that people out there think you knew about this? They think you had to know because you knew about everything.”
“That’s their opinion!” Paterno shouted. “I’m not omniscient!”
“They think you are!” D’Elia roared.
Later D’Elia described watching Paterno read the presentment. “What did he know about perverted things like that? When he asked Scott, ‘What is sodomy, anyway?’ I thought my heart was going to break.”
According to Posnanski, Scott remained adamant that his father could lose his job, expressing it to his mother Sue.
“I think you need to brace yourself,” Scott Paterno told his mother. “They could fire Dad.”
“Scotty, that will kill him,” she replied.
Posnanski says Joe Paterno wanted to air his side of the story and with his usual Tuesday news conference looming he thought he would get his chance.
To prepare him, family and friends pretended to be reporters and peppered him with questions. The news conference was canceled by the board of trustees about an hour before it was scheduled.
Posnanski said D’Elia saw the handwriting on the wall.
“That’s it,” D’Elia told Paterno family members. “They’re going to take Joe out.”
We know that prophecy was correct. With media waiting outside the family home on McKee Street, former assistant coach and player Fran Ganter drove up, went in and presented Paterno with a note containing just the name of board of trustees vice chairman John Surma and a phone number.
Posnanski describes the call.
“This is Joe Paterno.” “This is John Surma. The board of trustees have terminated you effective immediately.”
Paterno hung up before he heard anything else.
A day later, he sobbed “uncontrollably” when he met with his assistants and former captain Brandon Short.
“We had been through so much,” Sue Paterno recalled in the excerpts. “And I always thought, in the end, we would win.”
Those are just some of the details that only a privileged few know and what makes this book a must-read for anyone familiar with Paterno — whether you like him or not.
Throw in the fact that Posnanski is an excellent writer and you can bet the bookstore lines will be long on Tuesday.