STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The near-capacity crowd of 12,000 seemed to be just waiting for somebody to bring up the subject. Finally, when someone rose in Joe Paterno's defense to argue that he had been made a scapegoat, the audience was instantly on its feet, applauding thunderously.
Anger and resentment came spilling out at a campus memorial service Thursday for the football coach, two months after he was summarily fired by the trustees.
It was Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight who broke the dam, defending Paterno's handling of child-sex allegations that were leveled against a former coaching assistant.
"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."
Capping three days of mourning on campus, the 2½-hour ceremony was filled with lavish praise that probably would have embarrassed Paterno, who died Sunday of lung cancer at 85 after racking up more wins — 409 — than any other major-college football coach and leading his team to two national championships in 46 seasons.
One by one, Penn State football stars and others credited Paterno with building not just better athletes but better men — and women. 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.
Players from each decade of Paterno's career spoke affectionately about him, saying he rode them hard but always had their best interests at heart and encouraged them to complete their educations and make something of themselves.
Though the Penn State campus has been torn with anger over the child-sex scandal and Paterno's dismissal, Jay Paterno said his father didn't hold a grudge.
"Perhaps his truest moment, his living testimony to all that he stood for, came in the last months of his life. Faced with obstacles and challenges that would have left a lesser man bitter, he showed his truest spirit and his truest self," Paterno said.
Only one member of the university administration — the 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.
Among the speakers were Michael Robinson, who played for Paterno 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, once bringing 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, now a media executive on the board of The Associated Press.
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."
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. Sandusky was arrested in November and is awaiting trial on charges that he molested 10 boys over a 15-year span.
As the scandal erupted, Pennsylvania's state police commissioner said Paterno may have met his legal duty but not his moral one. Penn State president Graham Spanier was also fired in the fallout.
Among those at the memorial was former athletic director Tim Curley, who is awaiting trial on charges he lied to the grand jury that investigated Sandusky.
About midway through the ceremony, Knight became the first speaker to explicitly address the scandal. He said 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."
Lanny J. Davis, an attorney for the board, responded after the service by saying: "All the reasons for the board's difficult and anguished decision — made unanimously, including former football players and everyone who still loves Coach Paterno and his memory — reached a decision which was heartfelt. All 32."
"The facts speak for themselves" and include the grand jury testimony, he said.
After the memorial, Marrone said Knight was his "new hero" for expressing the "pent-up frustration" many people are feeling.Comment on this story
"I think the response that he got is indicative of how folks feel," Marrone said.
Jay Paterno, who served under his father as quarterback coach, began his remarks by imitating his father's raspy, high-pitched voice, telling the audience, "Sit down! Sit down!"
Growing serious, Paterno described his last moments with his father. As Paterno lay dying, his son kissed him and whispered in his ear.
"Dad, you won," Jay Paterno said he told him. "You did all you could do. You've done enough. We all love you. We won. You can go home now."