Joe Paterno interview: Sally Jenkins discusses her talk with ex-Penn State coach

Jan 16, 2012

Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins was online to discuss her exclusive interview with former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

Hi everybody sorry I'm a little late, hope to get in as many questions as possible.

Did I miss something? He appears to be very angry at Penn State for firing him, angry that this ruined his career, but I heard no sorrow or empathy for the victims. Me thinks this is the same attitude of narcissism that allowed this horror to continue for so long. Coaches and others who often define right and wrong have a responsibility to the right thing no matter what. Coach Joe failed and those who continue to support him and his actions are as much to blame. I am disgusted that these people put themselves before the kid victims.

I'm not sure I agree with your characterizations. He went out of his way to say that he himself not a victim, that he had a lot of good years at Penn State, and that while he didn't like the way he was dismissed, he doesn't want to be bitter. On the subject of the alleged victims, he expressed very clearly that if the charges are true, he's "sick about it." I did think his wife Sue was more articulate about the children than he was, but I wouldn't characterize him as without sympathy or thought for the alleged victims.

Over 1,600 comments (as of 5 pm Jan 15). Below is the second-most recommended. Please respond.


This "interview" is disgusting - a transparent and obvious spin, concocted by Paterno's DC-based lawyers and dressed up by apologist Sally Jenkins. Before a single question about Sandusky appears, there are two and a half pages building sympathy for Paterno.

The opening sentence "Joe Paterno sat in a wheelchair at the family kitchen table where he has eaten, prayed and argued for more than a half-century.". Are you kidding me? Whatever happened to journalistic perspective and integrity? In the very fist sentence he is Joe the dying family religious family man. Not Coach Paterno, powerful coach of one of the most storied football programs in the country. Not a leader of men, a professional decision maker, and the head of a multimillion dollar football program. Not one of the most powerful men in college football, perhaps the most powerful man in State College.

Yes, Paterno is old, and yes he is sick. But that is not the full picture of a man. It's a selection of facts deliberately chosen to give a distorted picture of the whole. This is hack PR spin, it has no place being presented as news in the Washington Post, and it is the low point in the career of Sally Jenkins - who was GREAT once.

Hi. This an enraging subject, and obviously a lot of people want a satisfaction from Joe Paterno they didn't get. His answers are indeed soft -- although I think if you read them again you see some things in there that are pretty revealing, phrases like "I backed away."  The story is meant to be neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic. We have a guy who had disappeared from public view and who hadn't said a word since he was fired from his job because his former assistant coach is accused of molesting children. I thought it was important to hear what he had to say for himself, and just tried to give readers a picture of where he is now, what his health situation is, what his thoughts are in response to as many hard questions as I could ask of him in a limited amount of time.  The fact that Paterno is in a wheelchair and has trouble breathing isn't a bid for sympathy, it's a fact. I think it's also important to note that so far, the indications from the grand jury and the attorney general's office are that Paterno testified truthfully and is a cooperating witness. It's also true that at least one member of the police force has said that while Paterno fufilled his legal obligation he should have done more morally-- a point that Paterno himself seems to agree with. Somebody asked me earlier today is Paterno is a victim or a perpetrator? The answer, barring any revelations, is that he's of course neither. He was once a very powerful figure at Penn  State, that's a good point, and one I tried to make in the last section of the story, but I could have done a better job of that, I agree.  It's also true that he's a broken  one. Mainly, the story is about Paterno's attempt to give his own account of himself and his actions. You either find him plausible, or not, and readers are clearly deeply, deeply divided. It was tough, tricky interview, compromised by his health and monitored by his attorneys, and I certainly didn't walk away from the interview satisfied. You always wish you could have asked one more question, or a tougher question. But hopefully we provided something that reades found interesting and at least a little bit enlightening or informative. If nothing else, we know how Paterno explains himself to himself. Whether that's worth reading is up to the reader.

Dear Sally Jenkins,

Your Joe Paterno piece was journalism at its vivid best. Nice job. When I was at Amherst, decades ago, before embarking on this peculiar spasm known as my life and writing career, I asked our own legendary coach, Jim Ostendarp, if any major football program combined academic and moral integrity with spectacular results, he answered, "Joe Paterno at Penn State." Your article was the proper music for the curtain's fall on this tragedy.

Paul Ehrmann, Austin, TX

I post this to heal my wounded pride. This is the other view of the Paterno. Look, he was a coach at Penn State for 61 years.  He did many good things and some that were not so good. You can cite the period from 2002-2007 when his team had a rash of arrests, and accusations that he interfered with the disciplinary process. You can also cite his 47 Academic All Americans and his undeniably high graduation rates, which were in the 75 percent range, much higher than most bowl-quality teams. You can cite his reputation for ethics, or you can cite his temper and his tendency towards holier than thou superiority and call him a hypocrite. It will be interesting to see how time and history -- and of course the Sanducky trial -- treat him.

Paterno mentioned he didn't know how to handle it. Do you think this was age related? Back when he had young kids, these crimes occurred in society and they were handled differently. Was it a generational thing? I'm still trying to figure out why he did nothing...

That's the crucial question -- do you believe Paterno when he says he had no experience with the topic of child molestation and didn't handle it well because of shock, or distaste? Or do you say, nobody is that naive? Paterno is 85, and he was 75 at the time that Mike McQueary came to him and said he saw Jerry Sandusky doing something to a boy a shower. McQueary has testifed that he was purposefully vague with Paterno, out of deference to his age and generation. He said, "You don't talk about those things with Joe Paterno." That leaves open the question of whether Paterno understood the seriousness of what he heard and after his reported it to his superuors, simply turned a blind eye as a form of coverup, or didn't follow up because he was uncertain of his ground and didn't want to be seen as interfering. I don't think the story solved that one.  Paterno insists on the latter interpretation.

So many reporters/newspapers out did the interview come to be? Did you contact the Paternos, or did they call you?  Any idea why the Paternos selected you and the WP for the exclusive? Did you find him honest and believable?

I was contacted by a representative for Paterno who said Paterno wanted to go public with someone and would we want the interview, given certain conditions. He didn't want to go on television, as he doesn't look great or sound great, and also the chemo affects his ability to be fully lucid at times. The conditions were that his lawyer be present, since he's a witness in an ongoing criminal trial, which, after discussing it with my editors, we agreed to.  This next part answers a question from above: I wrote a column back in November about "acquaintance molesters" in which I interviewed an FBI profiler named Ken Lanning who outlined how a molester is able to embed himself so deeply in the community and become so trusted. My understanding is that Paterno felt it was more reasonable than some things had been written, which is why he gave me the interview. Which may be one way of saying they took me for a patsy. At any rate, we jumped at the interview, as everyone wants to know what Paterno has to say about this case.

Many critics have complained that Joe didn't do more than report it to his supervisors, or follow up with them later when nothing happened. Did did he say whether that's true or not? If so, why?

Yes. I asked him point blank, "Why didn't you follow up?" Paterno satisfied the law when he reported to athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz, but he satisfied very few other people, including himself, when he never followed up. He did follow up with McQueary on a number of occasions, according to McQueary's testimony. But he never took it up with Schultz or Curley again. I asked, "What SHOULD you have done?" He replied that he should have called Curley and Schultz and said, "Where are we with this boy, and where are we with this coach?" I then asked, "Why didn't you do that?" Which is when he lapsed into the discussion of discomfort with the topic, his inexperience with it, and his reluctance to be seen as if he was interfering with university procedures on Sandusky's behalf.

Was Joe Paterno given false information repeatedly from higher-ups (like Spanier) that led him to believe the past incidents involving Sandusky were investigated and resolved?

That's not my understanding. Paterno is adamant that he had no knowledge of any previous report concerning Sandusky. He claims total ignorance of a 1998 police investigation of another shower incident that resulted in the local prosecutor decling to bring charges. I asked Paterno, "You never heard anything about that?" He said he had "no inkling" of it. I then followed up and pressed him on it, and asked how could he not have heard "a whisper," or a "rumor?" He said, "everybody thinks it was all over the (football) building. It wasn't. Nobody knew." As for the 2002 report from McQueary, my understanding is that if Paterno didn't have information, it's because he simply never asked. Which obviously many people interpret to mean he didn't WANT to know. 

Sally: I'm a frequent reader and admirer of your work. What were the conditions of the interview?

The conditions were as I described in the story: the interview was monitored by his attorney, Wick Sollers, and a communciations advisor, Dan McGinn. The interview was split into two sessions, as he is very weak. The first part lasted about a half hour, and the second part, the next morning, was very brief, I only had a chance to get in about four questions because he was ill and was later taken to the hospital. They weren't ideal conditions, obviously. My fear was that the attorney would constantly interrupt to amend his statements, or that they would coach him through it. I was pleasantly surprised that they were fairly uninstrusive. There were two or three instances where the attorney did pause the interview before Paterno could answer, and there were a couple of instances where the communications advisor jumped in. I left those answers out of the story. There are also portions of the interview where Paterno trailed off, or is very unclear.

How is Joe Paterno's health? Almost all cancers are "treatable," but that's a long way from curable. Were you able to learn anything about his health and his prognosis? Here's hoping for good news.

He has a tumor in his lung that is a treatable small cell cancer, although it was apparently not operable, because of his age or the nature of the cancer. He is in the midst of chemo, and it was going well as far as shrinking the tumor, but he has had some bad reactions to the chemo -- he's not been able to eat, and his breathing, as you can clearly hear on the recording, is very labored. He's still hospitalized for observation and will be held there, it's my understanding, through his next chemo treatment later this week.

Your Nov. 8 column, Blame for the Penn State scandal does not lie with Joe Paterno showed your stance on this issue, and it was evident in the whole interview --  especially when you started with such a sympathetic opening paragraph. How do you respond to this?

It's funny, there was a very violent reaction to that column, but I didn't view it as particularly sympathetic. It was an attempt to analyze how "acquaintance" molestors embed themselves and become so trusted in a community, as it was explained to me by Ken Lanning, a former FBI agent who profiles molestors and who wrote the manual on them for the Bureau. Ken's work is available online and it's fascinating-- and required reading for anyone with kids. Lanning's point is that these people are seducers, and that they seduce the adults as much as the children. They don't use a gun or a knife to committ their assaults, they use persuasion and obsequiousness. The people closest to them are the LAST ones to recognize them, because they don't want to admit they could have made such a mistake in judgment. All of which I find to be critically important context in this case. Look, Joe Paterno was one of literally hundreds of people in Pennsylvania who failed to recognize a molestor  if Jerry Sandusky is guilty. Sandusky presumably passed several tests with state child services, which allowed him to have foster children, for instance.

I love the guy.....but where was his outrage when he was fired without any due process? It seems his silence was his affirmation of guilt.

Well, he was plenty outraged for the first couple of days, and his kids and wife still are. But Paterno likes to see himself as "high road" guy, and he said that's how he wanted to handle it. Also, as he said, the U gave him 61 years. More than most institutions give head coaches. Paterno is no victim, and he seems to know it.

I want to know everything on how the college and JoePa made Sandusky retire at the height of his career? Who was present, and why none of this was discussed or part of the whole investigation.

There are a couple of long paragrahs in the story on just this question. Paterno claims Sandusky's retirement was based on his telling Sandusky he would never be a head coach, in concert with an buyout offer from the state for employees who had 30 years of service. Those who find Paterno disingenuous believe he must have had knowledge of a 1998 police report on Sandusky, and pushed him out. Paterno denies any knowledge of the '98 incident. Again, I pressed Paterno on whether he had heard even a whisper of that report, and he was insistent.

Sally,  thank goodness someone with your journalistic integrity conducted this interview! Finally some objective reporting!


I was a Federal employee misconduct investigator for years and I'm very aware of how complicated it is to conduct an administrative inquiry while there is a concurrent criminal investigation on-going. This fact seems lost on the media and the general public because the media did not address it. Both PSU, and to a greater extent Coach Paterno, would have to respect Sandusky's consitutional and privacy rights in how they handled whatever information they had in order not to jeopardize the criminal investigation.


Additionally, in order to act upon banning him from PSU, etc. they likely would have to 'show cause' as to why they were taking such actions guaranteed him under the terms of his retirement while at the same time considering the ramifications of providing such 'show cause' evidence in case the allegations were not substantiated by either the criminal or subsequent administrative investigation of the allegations.


How much did the legal requirements of conducting an administrative investigation while there was an ongoing criminal investigation (RE: Sandusky's rights as per his retirement rights with state of PA and retirement contract with PSU) affected how Paterno and/or PSU could take any action against Sandusky prior to the conclusion of the criminal inquiry? Who provided Coach Paterno with legal advice during the 1998 and 2002 reports against Sandusky?

Interesting. Paterno suggests that he didn't want to interfer in any "unversity procedures" in 2002. It's worth mentioning that there were occasions when Paterno WAS accused of interfering in university procedures: a former dean at Penn State has said there were occasions when a Penn State player was arrested that Paterno wanted to handle the matter internally.

Your article is most fair and, if I may say so, extremely well written. My question is, is it complete? That is, are all of your questions and Joe's answers in the article, or was the content trimmed?

Billy Pete

Producer's note: We have posted lengthy excerpts of Sally's Q&A with Joe Paterno here.

Thanks for the compliment, but no, the story is far from complete in the sense of, is it the comprehensive piece I wish it was? No. It was done based on a too brief interview and a crash deadline. The time with Paterno was limited, he was in poor health and didn't track some questions very well, some of his answers trailed off or were not really intelligible, and there are parts of the interview where you simply can't hear him or make out the word he is trying to say. With that said, I tried to quote him as extensively as possible in the piece, and we put up excerpts of the interview online. What's left out of the excerpts are places where the transcript simply made no sense, or where a lawyer or other representative interrupted. There are also some portions where there are so many people in the house all talking at once that you can't hear or make out Paterno's answer.

"The story is meant to be neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic." Sure read like a puff piece to me. You ate at his dinner table, looked at the family photos, and failed to either ask a tough question, a probing followup, or even a comparison to what he told you, vs. what he previously said under oath. Paterno himself acknowledged under oath that he knew "fondling" or "something of a sexual nature" had happened. Yet you let him go with the ambiguity, because it served his -- and your -- purposes.

Well, this is the danger of doing any piece in which you go inside someone's home, but I thought the exchange was worth it. As for letting him go, there are certainly places where I wish I did a better job of pressing him. Absolutely -- you never walk away from an interview satisfied that you thought of everything. It was a tricky, difficult situation -- you want to ask all the right tough questions, and yet you also have to recognize that you are dealing with someone in frail health and berating him is not the right approach either. So it was a tricky line to walk and I certainly don't feel satisfied that I got anything  close to great answers from him, or a comprehensive piece written. I tried to walk a line in which I asked good questions and aired his answers, without being sympathetic. It's up to the readers whether I suceeded or failed, and I'm happy to hear all the feedback.

Are we really supposed to believe that Paterno just didn't understand "rape and a man?" That he didn't understand that it was sexual? What were your follow-up questions to these statements?

This to me was the most provocative quote in the whole piece, and how you feel about it determines your view of Paterno. If there is one questi0n I wish I had followed up better, it's that one. Your feeling on his reply goes one of two ways: you either buy it or you don't. You either accept his portrait of himself as an old-world gentleman who couldn't cope with the issue, because he couldn't envision or address man-boy sexual assault, or you say, 'No one is that naive, no matter what generation they are from.'" I've gotten hundreds of responses from readers and they are split right down the middle on this one. Some find it totally plausible, others don't. I bought it in the instant when he said it, as his tone when he said it was actually agitated and seemed sincere. I have a father Paterno's age who is pretty profane, and he recoils from this subject too. But when I listened to the transcript latter, I certainly wished I had followed up. Instead I was focused on all the other questions I needed to ask him, too focused on my list instead of on what he was actually saying.

I'd love to know where the attorneys and communication advisers jumped in: those are the weak spots that they are concerned about.

They had to do with the fact that Paterno is a witness in an ongoing criminal investigation and there were certain questions they didn't feel he should try to answer. They referred me to the grand jury presentment. Or, there were a couple of instances where they paused the interview because Paterno simply didn't understand the question. And then, of course, they halted it when he got tired.

Will you or anyone else at The Post be doing any follow-up stories to try to get to the bottom of the rest of this mess? I think we know all we're going to know about Paterno now, but what about the Second Mile's role? Why did they not follow up when Curley reported the 2002 incident to them? Why did former president Graham Spanier not insist more action be taken when he found out about this? Why did the governor drag his feet on this investigation when the was the AG instead of immediately arresting Sandusky and preventing further abuse? There are so many other stories out there about his situation, but unfortunately, due to the media's preoccupation with Paterno, those stories are not being investigated.

All very good questions, and all worth asking by your local newspaper.

Sally - do you believe Paterno?

I don't know. That's my best answer. I wrote a story about a man battling on three fronts, fighting for his life, and his life's work, and his reputation, who had decided to break his silence. Some of his answers I found completely genuine, some I'm not as sure of. I'd prefer the reader simply make up their own mind. I'm actually  happy that the piece has drawn such divided, varying responses -- the fact that some people totally believe Paterno, and some people don't buy him at all.

There has been a great deal of commentary regarding the fact that Sandusky was still allowed to use the facilities and there is a great deal of argument over whether it was Joe who let him have that access or whether it was part of his retirement contract. Did you ask Joe whether it was Joe's decision to allow that access to continue, even after 2002 and continuing? There were also reports that Sandusky was using the gym as Joe was being fired and Sue Paterno was locked out of the swimming pool. Do you know whether Sue's access has been restored, given that Sandusky's access was apparently never denied to date?

Good questions. I asked about the access and this a place where the attorney answered, and the response was that access to facilities was not something Paterno granted but was part of Sandusky's retirement contract. I also asked Paterno point blank how much he saw Sandusky around, and Paterno replied that he couldnt remember the last time he had seen or talked to him. He indicated that he seldom went to the weight and workout room, which was the main facility that Sandusky used. As for the swimming pool issue, I can honestly say that whether or not Sue Paterno got to go swimming was not high on my list of questions for the Paternos.

Did you ask Paterno anything that he would not answer? Were there any questions to which Paterno's attorney and/or public relations consultant objected?

The attorney portion of the question is answered above, hopefully. There were a couple of questions that Paterno himself would not answer but not in the sense that you mean. For instance, I asked him how he responds to the fact that his ethics are being challenged after he spent so many years trying to build a reputation for an ethical program. He responded rather gruffly by saying he only read one newspaper story and then stopped, and he was satisfied with the way he had led his life and career. Not a very amplifying answer. That sort of thing. But there was no instance in which he simply refused to answer something. There were also some instances in which he said things like, "I don't know, I wish I knew." They were along the lines of struggling to answer, for instance, how an alleged child molestor, if guilty, could hide in plain sight on his staff for 30 years. You could read that as evasive, as some do, or as  struggling with inarticulacy, simply baffled.

No question, just a compliment for the interview you could generate as we learn more about the conditions in conducting the interview and providing this follow-up. Neither you or Paterno are robots, and good journalism is an art, not just a rote machination of fill-in-the-interview blanks.

How very kind of you. And how very self serving of me to post this.

You say your interview was meant "neither to be sympathetic or non-sympathetic". Yet it was accompanied by a poll which asked "After this interview, do you find Paterno to be sympathetic?" Does this seem a tad contradictory to you?

Well, I have to say the poll wasn't my idea. I didn't know the paper was doing it. Just saw it yesterday myself.

Most of feedback I read from media is a lack of new information in the article and a belief that he was lying. I don't know what else you could have asked, but do you believe he was sincere in his answers and what do you think when people say there was nothing new in the article?

I agree that Paterno didn't say anything that broke news or was explosive in the interview. I was disappointed that his answers to the hard questions lacked...edge. However I do think he said some revealing things, if you look at his answers to the most important questions. "I backed away," is a pretty powerful admission. And of course the notion that he somehow didn't understand what McQueary was telling him because he is too quaintly old world is a highly controversial claim that has generated a lot of discussion. So I think the interview was worthwhile. And then there is the simple fact that Paterno hadn't spoken prior to this. On whether he's lying: the grand jury didn't indict him for perjury as it did Curley and Schultz. And there has been nothing from the Attorney General's office to indicate they think Paterno has been anything but forthcoming and cooperative with them. So journalistically, you have to respect those two things.  As for my own feeling, I found Paterno's responses to some questions very persuasive and genuine, at other times he seem sort of rote.  I think the readers can discern those for themselves, which is why I quoted him so liberally.

I was never able to actually take the poll because the link wasn't working ... maybe because of Internet Explorer. I'm curious as to whether the poll results showed any public sympathy toward Joe Paterno. Can you share the results with those of us who were not able to participate? I would have voted to support Joe Paterno, just for the record.

From the producer: The poll asked, "After reading Joe Paterno's comments, how do you feel about how he handled the alleged sexual abuse by Jerry Sandusky?"


Results after 4,370 votes (so far -- and remember, this is an unscientific poll):

- Very sympathetic: 47 percent

- Somehwat sympathetic: 11 percent

- Somewhat unsympathetic: 6 percent

- Not sympathetic at all: 35 percent

- Neutral/no opinion: 2 percent


You can/should be able to take the poll by clicking here


Okay, folks, I have to run. I'm sorry I didn't get to more of your questions, but some of those I did respond to were quite long and it took awhile to type long answers. Thanks for being here, and for reading the Washington Post.

In This Chat
Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for The Washington Post, rejoined the newspaper as a full-time columnist in summer 2000. She previously worked for the newspaper from 1983 to1989. Before rejoining The Post, Jenkins was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. Jenkins is the author of "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation" and and co-author of "The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy" (co-written with historian John Stauffer), "It's Not About the Bike" (co-written with cyclist Lance Armstrong); "Reach for the Summit" and "Raise the Roof" (both co-written with women's basketball coach Pat Summit); and "A Coach's Life" (co-written with college basketball coach Dean Smith). Jenkins is a graduate of Stanford University. She is a native of Fort Worth, Texas and lives in New York City.
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