STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania — Some 12,000 people — including Penn State students, fans and football stars — paid tribute to Joe Paterno in a campus memorial service Thursday that exposed a strong undercurrent of anger over his firing just months before his death.
In a 2½-hour gathering that capped three days of mourning on campus, Nike chairman and CEO Phil Knight brought the near-capacity crowd at the arena to its feet when he defended the coach's handling of child-sex allegations leveled against a former assistant. Paterno was fired two months ago by the Penn State trustees.
The ceremony was filled with lavish praise of 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. Paterno put the once obscure university on the American sports map.
"This much is clear to me: If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno," 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."
He was saluted for his commitment to sportsmanship, loyalty, teamwork, good character, academics and "winning with honor." He was called a good father, a good neighbor, a good friend, a good teacher.
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, which was arranged primarily by the Paterno family.
Paterno was fired 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.
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