A Coaching Legend's Sad Finale: Paterno

Updated on April 28, 2018


In a coaching career that lasted more than six decades, Joe Paterno did very much to contribute to both football and academics at Penn State University. However, his career and his life ended with big questions involving how much Paterno knew about sexual misconduct that was committed by his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. The HBO movie Paterno takes a look at the famed coach as he prepares to set a milestone. As Paterno (Al Pacino) prepares to become the winningest head coach in NCAA Division I history, a grand jury indicts Sandusky (Jim Johnson) on numerous child sex abuse charges. As Sara Gamin (Riley Keough), a journalist who had been reporting the incidents involving Sandusky, reads the indictment news, she sees Penn State's vice president and athletic director have also been named for failing to report these allegations to law enforcement, among other things. In fact, Sandusky still had access to certain parts of the campus after his retirement, until a Paterno assistant caught Sandusky in the shower in a disturbing situation.

Even after the coach gets his record victory, Paterno does not make the time to read the charges in the indictment, as he prepares to coach his next game. As the news spreads, students come to the Paterno home to express their support, even as his lawyer son, Scott (Greg Grunberg) tries to address the throng. A Paterno daughter calls a public relations specialist, who thinks Paterno should announce his retirement. Even though the coach tells his team that the current season will be his last in the place known as Happy Valley, the college's board of trustees fire Paterno, the university president, vice president, and athletic director effective immediately. While his wife Sue (Kathy Baker) and the rest of his family support him, they wonder if he knew more than he reported to his superiors following the shower incident.


Paterno is a tough, though not in-depth, look at a legendary coach and the incidents that tarnish his legacy. Sandusky spent a total of 32 years as an assistant to Paterno. His retirement came following the 1999 season, following an accusation of molestation of a boy he'd invited to travel with him and the team to the Alamo Bowl game. Why, at this point, did the head coach not insist be barred from the campus instead of being treated like an honored retiree? For the most part, director Barry Levinson simply lays out the facts, along with some conjecture from the reflective mind of the man often known as JoePa. The screenplay from Debora Cahn and John C. Richards doesn't have much in terms of characterization, but ends on two troubling questions: How much did Paterno actually know, and when did he first become suspicious of his trusted assistant?

Pacino delivers a strong, but very sad, as the coach. Paterno had weathered an effort to fire him several years earlier following a run of losing seasons, but he, by 2011, was feeling every bit of his 84 years. In fact, he had to coach games from the press box because he suffered a hip injury when a player collided with him during a Nittany Lions practice. He'd openly insisted he'd done his part in reporting the Sandusky abuse, but in his mind, he wonders if he missed something. The elderly Paterno had become a man of limited focus - primarily on football and family, which included his son, Jay (Larry Mitchell), who assisted his father's team. Pacino also bears a bit of a resemblance to Paterno as the actor brings this aged man to life on the small screen. I also liked Keough as Ganim, who stayed on top of the accusations as a reporter when few cared prior to the Sandusky indictment. Unlike Paterno, though, Ganim shows she can deal with the media attention the indictment brings. Her reporting here would win her a Pulitzer Prize.


Unfortunately, Paterno spoke little about Jerry Sandusky or the charges brought against him. The things Paterno did say shortly before his death made him sound like a man far behind the times and the realities of the 21st century. Even worse, Penn State is not the only university shown to conceal extreme sexual misconduct in the ranks of their athletic departments. Baylor and Michigan State are just two examples of colleges that went to great lengths to try and convince victims of non-consensual sex acts to stay quiet. I have no doubt that Joe Paterno did not condone the actions for which Jerry Sandusky went to prison. Paterno shows he was far too content trusting others to do right in this situation. Had these men been Paterno players who constantly failed on-field assignments, he'd have made it his business to make sure they weren't a part of his team.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Paterno three stars. Sad times in Happy Valley.

Paterno trailer

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