The Sins of Penn State: The Untold Story of Joe Paterno’s Fall

The world Joe Paterno created brought him down in the end.

TO GET A REAL FEEL FOR THE UNDERBELLY of “the Penn State way,” we need to understand the administrators on the other side of Joe Paterno—meaning his bosses, Tim Curley and Graham Spanier.

Curley, as athletic director, wasn’t merely some administrator foolhardy enough to leap into the buzz saw of Paterno’s power. The job of being Joe Paterno’s de facto superior required a man who understood the territory. Curley was to the manor born.

He grew up in State College, across from the old Beaver Field in the center of campus. A friend who has known him well since 1966—since middle school—says Curley­ worried a great deal about what people thought. His mother worked at Bostonian, and Tim wore khaki pants, penny loafers, pressed shirts—“a company man in high school,” says his old friend. “He was very conscious of doing the right thing.”

He parked cars for games and sold programs, and went to Penn State. He made the team as a walk-on quarterback, and after he graduated in 1976, he became a graduate assistant coach. Curley was eventually promoted to assistant athletic director. A faculty friend, who teaches in athletics, says Curley idolized Joe, and it was clear early on, long before he got the job as athletic director at the end of 1993, that Paterno was grooming him for something bigger.

He felt the stress. “I never saw a guy’s hair go gray so fast as Tim’s,” his faculty friend says. “I know he disagreed with certain things [Paterno did]. But he took the company line. Joe knew he would. The number one trait of the job was absolute loyalty.” Even if Curley was Paterno’s boss.

Curley sent an email to the athletic department one season. A new floor had just been laid in the indoor sports complex. Curley directed that no water bottles, cleats, chalk or anything else that might mar the new floor be taken into the facility. And yet a couple days later, the end-of-year football banquet was held there. Steaks, beer—you name it—hit the new floor.

Curley’s friend emailed him: “Who’s going to tell Joe to stop using the facility?”

“Ha!” Curley emailed back. He understood the absurdity of his role, at any rate.

Graham Spanier spent a decade and a half in a different two-step with Joe Paterno. When Spanier came to Penn State in 1995, he knew that at some point he’d have to deal with the 68-year-old coach leaving, and that he might even have to push him out. It was a big headache, but suggested a possibility, too. Big-time alum Anthony Lubrano heard Spanier say it several times, with a certain pride: “I’m going to be the president to replace Joe Paterno.”

Spanier has a doctorate in sociology and was trained as a family therapist—his interest in therapy likely stemming from his childhood in Chicago. Several times when Spanier was a boy, his father beat him up, breaking his nose, which is notably long and flat; a few years ago, he had surgery to relieve a breathing problem presumably caused by the abuse. Michael Oriard, an associate dean at Oregon State University whose family has taken many camping trips with Spanier’s, says the only time he’s ever seen Graham angry was during one trip, when a teenage boy punched Oriard’s son. Spanier simply couldn’t abide a child getting hurt.

As president, Spanier was endlessly energetic, often answering emails until two or three in the morning. He made moves right out of the chute that changed Penn State academically—that, in fact, helped lift the school to the standards Paterno had called for. He promoted Rod Erickson (now president) to provost and brought in a number of new deans. He created an honors college that ratcheted up the school’s academic cachet; the endowment more than doubled.

It brought him attention, and he reveled in it. Before every home football game, Spanier hosted his own tailgate party, with perhaps 600 people attending. As the guests mingled, a pep band would march in, with a couple of horns, some drums; the last person to enter would be Graham Spanier, pounding away on a big bass drum strapped over his shoulders. And after the school’s nationally ranked baton twirlers performed, Graham­ would grab a baton and give that a whirl. He was a natural showman.

Yet Spanier had a continuing problem: His football coach was getting older and older. And not going anywhere. Worse, the coach was much more famous—and more important to the university—than Graham Spanier. And after 2004, Spanier knew there was nothing he could do about that.

A close friend of Joe Paterno’s told me a story: “Spanier would take big donors down before the game, while the team was warming up, and introduce them to Joe. Once, he took a certain ex-player down on the field, wooing this guy for big money. Spanier brought the guy to Paterno, and Joe said: ‘I heard he’s a good businessman. He was an ordinary fullback for me.’”

Did Spanier get his money from the guy?