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.
A public viewing for Paterno was held on campus on Tuesday and Wednesday, and he was buried Wednesday afternoon at a State College cemetery.