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How does a man become mythic, and what happens when the myth collides with reality? Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State football coach, modeled his life and career after the classic heroes he loved, but in the end his story was a modern tragedy. The winningest coach ever in college football, crafter of The Grand Experiment that put honor and academics above all else, finished his days under the dark cloud of shame and unspeakable child abuse.

How? Why? What mix of fandom, ego, and unfettered power brought Penn State and its beloved coach to this? Just days after Paterno’s death comes this insightful look at the rise of Penn State under the 46-year reign of the man affectionately known as Joe Pa. Acclaimed writer Jonathan Mahler, author of the bestseller “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning,” has been immersed in reporting the Paterno saga since the scandal broke last fall. His penetrating narrative traces the arc of Paterno’s career from dogged Ivy League quarterback to visionary coach to unassailable icon. Over the years, as his fame and reputation grew, Happy Valley (as State College, Pennsylvania, was often called) morphed into the realm of Paterno; the chant “We Are Penn State” could just as easily have been “We Are Coach Paterno.” It was perhaps inevitable that what Mahler calls “a slow rot” began to pervade Joe Pa’s football program, culminating with the horrific scandal that rocked Penn State and forever altered the Paterno story.

"As it all unraveled," Mahler writes, "he seemed to resemble less his hero Aeneas, building a new nation—Penn State Nation—in Happy Valley, than King Lear, clinging stubbornly to the throne when he no longer had the judgment required to remain in it, then succumbing to the grief and anguish that accompanied the collapse of everything he had so painstakingly built."

Mahler’s admiring yet honest assessment shows what can happen when a school, and an entire community, falls under a cult of personality. Part eulogy, part post-mortem, part wise appraisal, “Death Comes to Happy Valley” is a thoughtful farewell to the larger-than-life man who was, in fact, merely mortal.


Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer to “The New York Times Magazine” and the author of the bestselling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City” (the basis for the ESPN mini-series “The Bronx Is Burning”) and “The Challenge: How a Maverick Navy Officer and a Young Law Professor Risked Their Careers to Defend the Constitution — and Won.”

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