Mike Fleming

Joe Paterno MovieUPDATE: Rarely have I gotten so many emails on a story that has struck a nerve among former students of Penn State. Some claiming to have clout in Hollywood say they will try to squash this project, and others are critical of me and defensive of the beloved Paterno, claiming he got a raw deal. I can’t imagine these apologists have kids. The idea that nobody acted seriously on information given by grad assistant and later assistant coach Mike McQueary that could have stopped a predator convicted on dozens of counts of molesting vulnerable children is unconscionable. Paterno defenders say that McQueary was vague in describing what he saw, but I fall on the side of those who feel that Paterno was so powerful at Penn State that he could have stopped this in its tracks had he chosen to follow up, or even if he had dialed three numbers: 911. McQueary certainly wasn’t vague in his testimony at Sandusky’s trial, saying he was sure he had stumbled upon Sandusky engaging in a sexual act with an underage boy. When I think of great college coaches, I wonder: what would someone like Bobby Knight have done if given the same information?

The administration at Penn State chose to protect its cherished powerhouse and lucrative football program, and went against the contract that any institution of higher learning has, which is to protect the young and vulnerable. The idea that this just somehow happened, and nobody but Sandusky was to blame, is something I will never embrace. Had that been the case, I doubt the university would have fired Paterno and later torn down his statue, or that the NCAA would have leveled devastating sanctions against the football program at the expense of current players who had absolutely nothing to do with any of this and who didn’t deserve punishment that was delivered to send a clear message about prioritizing what is important. Regretfully, that is Paterno’s enduring legacy now. But keep the emails coming!

EARLIER EXCLUSIVE, FRIDAY 5:30 PM: ICM Partners next week will be taking a package for a movie about former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, with Al Pacino attached to play the man called JoePa by most students at Happy Valley. The package will be built around Joe Posnanski’s biography Paterno, which is now atop The New York Times Bestseller List in its second week. Pacino’s manager, Rick Nicita, will produce.

The narrative arc of the movie that will be shopped is obvious. A man becomes the winningest coach in college football history and builds a powerhouse football program that turns him into a campus deity. When his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is revealed to be a pedophile and it comes out Paterno was told and helped hide the scandal, the coach was summarily fired. He died shortly after of cancer — and many feel of a broken heart — and the school had little choice but to raze a fabled statue of Paterno just as the NCAA dropped the hammer with sanctions against the school that included removal of Paterno’s wins going back to the cover-up. Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse against young boys and is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Posnanski, an award-winning sportswriter who has written for Sports Illustrated and The Kansas City Star, had spent a year working on the book when the scandal broke. The book–and the movie–isn’t just about Paterno’s demise but rather his life before Penn State, his family and the iron grip he held over Penn State football and politics until his downfall. This can either be a feature film or a cable movie, because Shakespeare himself would have had trouble coming up with anything this shocking, and because the issues here still boggle the mind.

How could a coach whose mission was to mold college athletes into men and who was revered by his players stand idly by after learning one of his former coaches was a perv who used his charity for underprivileged kids, The Second Mile, to lure young fatherless victims for sexual trysts? An investigation indicated that Paterno used his influence to a degree that police weren’t even called after a graduate assistant (who later became an assistant coach) witnessed Sandusky engaged in what he believed to be a sexual encounter with a minor in the Penn State football facility showers but told the coach instead of calling the authorities. While Paterno told his superiors, he might not have wanted to sully his beloved football program with bad press, his inaction enabled Sandusky to operate unfettered for a decade, ruining young lives in the process.

A deal needs to be made, a script written and a director secured before this actually happens, but Pacino is a great choice. He played a memorable head football coach in the Oliver Stone-directed Any Given Sunday, and he also played Jack Kevorkian in the HBO film You Don’t Know Jack. I don’t often write about projects before they’re set up, but I doubt this one will stay on the market for long. John Burnham, Jeff Berg and Adam Schweitzer rep Pacino at ICM Partners, while the agency’s book czar Sloan Harris reps Posnanski.