STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Crediting him with building not just better athletes but better men, former Penn State football stars and others paid tribute to Joe Paterno in a huge campus memorial service Thursday that exposed a strong undercurrent of anger over his firing.
In a 2½-hour gathering that capped three days of mourning on campus, Nike chairman and CEO Phil Knight instantly brought the near-capacity crowd of 12,000 to its feet in thunderous applause when he defended the coach’s handling of child-sex allegations leveled against a former assistant. Paterno was fired over the episode two months ago.
“This much is clear to me: If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno’s response,” Knight said. Paterno’s widow, Sue, was among those rising to their feet.
Later, Paterno’s son Jay received a standing ovation when he declared: “Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience.”
The ceremony at the university basketball arena was filled with lavish praise that probably would have embarrassed Paterno, who died of lung cancer Sunday at 85 after racking up more wins — 409 — than any other major-college football coach and leading his team to two national championships in his 46 seasons.
He was saluted for his commitment to sportsmanship, loyalty, teamwork, character, academics and “winning with honor.” He was called a good father, a good husband, a good neighbor, a good friend, a good teacher.
About midway through the ceremony, Knight became the first speaker to explicitly address the scandal, and the audience let loose as if it had been waiting for someone just to raise the topic.
Only one member of the university administration — dean of the college of liberal arts — and no one from the Board of Trustees spoke at the memorial, arranged primarily by the Paterno family.
Among the speakers were star athletes from each decade of Paterno’s career, including Michael Robinson, who played from 2002 to 2005, quarterback Todd Blackledge from the 1980s and Jimmy Cefalo, a star in the 1970s. All three went on to play in the NFL.
Former NFL player Charles V. Pittman, speaking for players from the 1960s, called Paterno a lifelong influence and inspiration.
Pittman said Paterno pushed his young players hard that he brought Pittman to tears in his sophomore year. He said he realized later that the coach was not trying to break his spirit but instead was “bit by bit building a habit of excellence.”
“He was building a proud program for the school, the state and the hundreds of young men he watched over for a half century,” said Pittman, senior vice president for publishing at Schurz Communications Inc., an Indiana-based company that owns TV and radio stations and newspapers. He is a member of the board of directors of The Associated Press.
“Now, with grown children, grandkids and 42 years removed from my playing days, I thought Joe Paterno had taught me all that he could teach me. I was wrong,” Pittman said. “Despite being pushed away from his beloved game, and under the extreme pressure of the events of the past few months, Joe’s grace was startling.”
Similarly, Chris Marrone, whose playing career at Penn State was cut short by injuries, said Paterno molded him into a young man with “the strength to overcome any challenge, any adversity.”
“The greatness and the legacy of Joe Paterno lies within each of us, and no one, and I mean no one, can take that from him or from us,” Marrone said.
Paterno was fired by the trustees Nov. 9 after he was criticized for not going to police in 2002 when he was told that a former member of his coaching staff, Jerry Sandusky, had been seen sexually assaulting a boy in the showers at the football complex. Sandusky was arrested in November and is awaiting trial on charges he sexually assaulted 10 boys over a 15-year span.
As the scandal erupted, Pennsylvania’s state police commissioner said that Paterno may have met his legal duty but not his moral one to go to police. Penn State president Graham Spanier was also fired in the fallout.
At Thursday’s memorial, Knight defended Paterno, saying the coach “gave full disclosure to his superiors, information that went up the chains to the head of the campus police and the president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world-class university, and by a president with an outstanding national reputation.”
Recounting Paterno’s accomplishments, Knight asked: “Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?”
A public viewing for Paterno was held on campus on Tuesday and Wednesday, and he was buried Wednesday afternoon at a State College cemetery.