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On the Outside Looking In
on August 25, 2007
One of the great joys of Penn State football fandom is reading books about Coach Paterno and his program. As both a fan and a reader, any disappointment I had with this one was chiefly due to the limited access given to the author. After a nine-loss season in 2003 that marked the nadir of precipitous competitive slide, and an increasing number of off-field incidents, Coach Paterno was understandably guarded -- even abandoning a longstanding tradition of meeting with reporters over cocktails the night before game day. (Stiffing reporters in this fashion was probably an unwise political move that helped to contribute to the "JoePa Must Go" sentiment.)
What then is a writer to do? One approach could have been to chronicle the growing division within the Penn State community -- former players, alumni, students, and the media -- over the tough times in Happy Valley, using a few colorful and outspoken characters as a catalyst for that division.
Instead, Mr. Fitzpatrick delivers a fairly straightforward chronicle of the 2005 season's aspirations and disappointments. He does an adept job for those readers who may not be familiar with the programs history, but for those readers who are the chapters on glories past provide no new insight and interrupts the narrative of the current season.
Penn State's decline was primarily attributable to lackluster recruiting that produced players unable to compete effectively in the Big Ten, and Mr. Fitzpatrick is spot on when he writes that Paterno was mindful of this: "Other teams had more talent than Penn State. But to admit that too often in public was to demean his players.... [He] understood that the quickest solution to the Nittany Lions' troubles would be to search harder and more selectively for talent." (p. 287)
Once again, Coach Paterno's refusal to publicly contemplate life after football is highlighted, where is prospective retirement activity has changed over the years from collecting stamps to cutting grass. With the almost immediate death of Alabama's Bear Bryant after his retirement, Mr. Paterno is quite candid about his deep seated fears: "I'm alive. I don't want to die. Football keeps me alive." (p. 276) This outlook is quite tragic and perplexing, given his successes off the field as an educator, philanthropist, community leader and family patriarch.
In short, this volume does not quite rise to the level of incisiveness of Ken Denlinger's "For the Glory" or Coach Paterno's decades-old autobiography, which is in desperate need of an update. But it reads quickly and provides and admirable journalistic account of Happy Valley's darkest days in the Paterno era.