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Why Beano Cook Loved Penn State. Really

Author John D. Lukacs goes behind the scenes with Cook, Joe Paterno and "Haven't They Suffered Enough?"

Beano Cook and Joe Paterno once nearly came to blows over a recruit, one who eventually was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Paterno reminded Cook of that incident years, telling him, "I would have kicked your ass."

The story is one of dozens in "Haven't They Suffered Enough?" Cook's posthumously published memoir that is required reading for college football fans. The laugh-out-loud, occasionally profane, always fascinating book is Cook's love letter to college football, television, PR and their often fractured relationships.

"Haven't They Suffered Enough?" rides shotgun with Cook through his days at Pitt, the NFL and at ABC and ESPN, where he became an influential voice of college football. Unfortunately, Cook passed away in October 2012 before finishing the book. Author John D. Lukacs took it from there.

Lukacs, a longtime colleague and friend, had worked on the book and promised Cook he would finish it.

"First, I felt it was needed to preserve and celebrate Beano’s legacy. I wanted to update his obituary in a way," Lukacs said. "Secondly, when I went back into the material, it was so good to hear his voice again on the interview tapes. I realized that many college football fans probably missed his voice as well and that the material needed to be shared with the rest of the world."

"Haven't They Suffered Enough?" is particularly compelling for Penn State fans, as it dives into the complex relationship between Cook and Paterno and Cook's love for State College.

In this Q&A, Lukacs discusses the book, the Cook-Paterno connection, and that near-fistfight over a big-name recruit.

Question: Beano Cook passed away before completing this book. How long did it take you to finish it, and why was that important to you?

John D. Lukacs: From a professional partnership perspective, Beano and I started working on what would eventually become “Haven’t They Suffered Enough?” in early 2000. He had been assembling material and arranging notes since 1974, when he was the publicity director of the Miami Dolphins.  Some of his earliest notes were typed on the back of the releases he wrote for games that season. So, for all intents and purposes, Beano started work on the book three years before I was born.

When he brought me aboard, I went through his files and my immediate thought was that Beano as a writer was like an embattled offensive coordinator: He just couldn’t, in a matter of speaking, call a game and move the ball down the field. The material was, as he used to say, “unbelievable.” He had an innovative playbook, some excellent ideas for chapters, and a ton of great lines, but he’d had so many false starts over the years. He worked on it in fits and spurts and with a few other writers, but there was virtually no progress made. When we became co-coordinators, we started completing some drives. At the time of his death in October 2012, we had a little more than half of the manuscript completed. I had been working on some other projects in the intervening years, but it wasn’t until 2018-2019 that I decided to open up the files again.

The motivation came from watching ESPN’s 150th anniversary of college football series. While I thought the overall production was really well-done, I felt the network didn’t give Beano a fair shake, both in terms of what he meant to the sport, but also in regards to his extremely important, foundational role in ESPN’s rise to the top of the sports media world. I was also troubled that Beano was (unfairly) going to be forever known for the ESPN outtakes and the Ron Powlus prediction. His career was really so much more than those things. So it became a mission of mine to finish the book.

Beano Cook and John D. Lukacs

Authors Beano Cook and John D. Lukacs at the former Pitt Stadium, which was located on the University of Pittsburgh campus. Cook spent 10 years at Pitt as an athletics publicist.

Q: What did this book mean to Beano and to you?

Lukacs: It meant the world to Beano because he wanted to be known as a good writer more than anything else in the world. He grew up wanting to be a sportswriter. When that didn’t happen despite all his hustle and plans, he still wanted to try to make a name for himself as a writer through some kind of book or novel. I don’t think he ever really gave up on that dream. He had great camera presence and had an incredibly quick wit and creative mind, but for some reason he couldn’t be on paper what he was on live TV or radio. He just didn’t have the two things necessary to accomplish that goal: innate writing talent and the patience to sit in front of a typewriter or laptop (not that he would have ever owned a computer!) to develop what limited literary skills he had.

I found his chase of this dream both fascinating and tragic. It was fascinating because here was a guy who had become a household name as a television commentator. He couldn’t walk down the street or go out to eat without someone recognizing him or stopping to ask him his thoughts on a game, a coaching search, etc. So many people would kill for his career and that fame. It was tragic because he had all that, but it wasn’t what he really wanted. Since he meant so much to me as both a mentor and a friend, it means the world to me that I was able to finally fulfill that dream for him, to put his name in big letters on the front cover of a book. Of course, it’s a posthumous reward, but like the Gipper told Knute Rockne in the speech, “I don’t know where I’ll be then, but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy.” I am certain Beano knows about it and is happy.

Q: Beano seemed to have a colorful relationship with Joe Paterno. Is it true that they nearly came to blows in a Pittsburgh bar in the 1950s and that, decades later, Paterno reminded Beano that, “I would have kicked your ass?” All because of a recruit?

Lukacs: Yes! As Beano tells the story in the book, the altercation took place at Frankie Gustine’s Restaurant, a legendary hangout for athletes and media personalities in Pittsburgh. While recruiting is a really big deal now thanks to the Internet, the thought of getting into an actual fistfight over a recruit would probably seem ridiculous even to people today. But then again, this particular recruit became a consensus All-American, member of the NFL’s 75th and 100th anniversary teams and both the College and Pro Football halls of fame. His name was Mike Ditka.

Q: You mentioned that Beano and Joe sat down for an informal interview in 2001. What was that experience like?

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Lukacs: Penn State held a retirement party for Budd Thalman, the longtime sports information director, in the summer of 2001 and Beano was invited. Beano and Budd had been close friends since Budd worked at Navy, so Beano (who in addition to refusing to own a computer, cellphone or answering machine didn’t have a car) wasn’t going to miss this for anything. He asked me to drive him to State College for the party. There was a main event at the Bryce Jordan Center followed by a reception.

While Joe was getting a drink at the bar on the deck he laughingly asked me why I was still hanging around with “a character like Beano” and if I was aware of the “Gustine’s story.” When he proceeded to fill me in, Beano interrupted and said, “Joe was lucky there were people there to hold me back.” That was when Joe roared, “I would have kicked your ass!” Beano laughed and admitted that Joe was probably right. Everyone had a great laugh.

After that icebreaker, the three of us sat down in the corner, and I listened to what was probably Beano’s all-time greatest interview and what might also have been the most revealing one-on-one conversation Joe ever had with any media member in his career. I considered trying to record bits and pieces of the conversation with my cellphone, but it quickly occurred to me this was an off-the-record conversation between two old friends and that it wouldn’t have been appropriate. So I forgot about being a journalist, and instead my job was to refill Joe’s glass of Jim Beam when necessary!

Over the course of the next hour, I heard the two of them discuss everything from 1950s Pitt-PSU recruiting battles and obscure plays and games to the extra-marital affairs of famous coaches and the goal-line stand in the ’79 Sugar Bowl. I ingested more college football history in that one hour than I probably did in the previous fifteen falls of watching “College GameDay” or all the books I’d read on the sport. One question and answer I vividly remember and will share was when Beano asked Joe, “if you could go up against any coach in the history of the sport with both teams being equal in terms of personnel and No. 1 on the line, who would it be? Rockne? Leahy? Warner? The Bear?”

Joe thought for a second and replied, “Ara Parseghian.” Then he said, “no, wait.” He took a sip of his drink and after a few seconds of reflection uttered another name: “Barry Switzer.”  And then he went into his reasoning and you could almost hear the film projector turn on in your head as he started rehashing the ’86 Orange Bowl. Here it was, 2001, 15 years had passed, and that game was still bugging the guy.

Beano Cook book

Beano Cook's book "Haven't They Suffered Enough?" was published in 2021, nine years after Cook's death. Author John D. Lukacs spent several years compiling material to complete the book.

Q: With regard to Paterno’s relationship with the media, Beano said, “The people who run China and North Korea would be impressed if they knew what Penn State once got away with.” What did he mean by that?

Lukacs: One of Beano’s big complaints, and we get into this in detail in the book, was his belief that one of the unfortunate byproducts of Joe getting the head job at Penn State in 1966 was the way it changed Joe. According to Beano, the Gustine’s incident wasn’t indicative of Joe’s original personality. Sure, he was super competitive, but Beano liked Joe when they were younger because he thought he was truly different than most football coaches. He mentions in the book that when Joe was an assistant, he considered him an intellectual, and the two of them talked about things totally unrelated to football: books, movies, politics, etc.  When Joe got the head job, Beano felt he changed, that he became a “win-at-all-costs” coach just like the cutthroats in the South and in the pros.

Beano’s first inkling of this change was what he considered to be a very restrictive media policy that characterized a big portion of Joe’s career, the way Penn State tried to strictly control access to players, the flow of information and the perception of the program to the outside world. As someone who attended Penn State for a year and wrote for the Daily Collegian, I think Beano was on to something in many ways. As a later neutral observer (I’m a Notre Dame alum and fan), I think that some of Beano’s claims might have been rooted in a hardcore Pitt fan’s jealousy of Penn State’s success. Either way, I think readers and PSU fans will find the material quite interesting.

Q: Did Beano really suspect that Joe Paterno tried to give a Pittsburgh TV reporter a copy of a fake Penn State playbook before the 1980 Pitt-Penn State game?

Lukacs: I don’t know if Beano totally believed that particular incident to have been deliberately planned and executed for the express purpose of deceiving Pitt, but to him it fit into that pattern, that “win-at-all-costs” approach that he thought Joe and Penn State had fallen victim to. The only certainty in this tale is that the Pittsburgh TV reporter in question, the great Bill Hillgrove, the current play-by-play voice of Pitt football and the Steelers, did find the playbook. Bill first communicated the story to Beano more than 40 years ago, filled me on it and I believe him!

Q: There’s a great line that “Lewis and Clark would have a hard time finding it, but State College, Pennsylvania is my favorite college town and the Rathskeller [RIP] on Pugh Street is my favorite college bar.” What did Beano love about them?

Lukacs: With the exception of the years he spent in prep school at Kiski in Saltsburg, Pa., Beano lived in big cities —: New York, D.C., St. Petersburg, Miami, and of course Pittsburgh — his entire life. So when he traveled to college football games, he really, really enjoyed the change of pace and the people he encountered in the smaller college towns. For a guy who never traveled overseas or visited any exotic destinations, places like Athens, Lincoln, Tuscaloosa, et al, were his vacations. And he thought State College was the best of them all.

He enjoyed the ride up through the mountains, the layout of the town, the tree-lined streets, the shops and businesses, the friendliness of the residents, and even though he was never a big drinker, he had some fun evenings over the years at the ‘Skeller, so these fond memories stayed with him. I think him putting these rankings down on paper gives the average PSU fan a little different perspective on who Beano Cook was. He might have made you want to throw things at the TV when he was on your screen back in ‘87, but I don’t think you’d find any current commentators exhibit this kind of honesty today.

For example, imagine a former Ohio State player saying Ann Arbor was his favorite college town. That wouldn’t happen in 2022. Today, they all play the role and act the part. Beano was certainly a “Pitt guy,” but he was honest and a college football fan above all else.

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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.