NBCPhiladelphia.com - Lu Ann Cahn
The crowd at Penn State took to their feet on Thursday for Sue Paterno during the memorial service for her husband Joe Paterno.
With fond memories and lavish praise that might have embarrassed the school's beloved coach, Penn State paid tribute to Joe Paterno at a public memorial Thursday, an event that capped three days of public mourning following his death from lung cancer.
Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight got a standing ovation for defending the late coach's response to an accusation of child sex abuse against a former assistant.
Knight said that, "If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, and not in Joe Paterno's response.''
The remark drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 12,000 -- with Paterno's widow, Sue, and former defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, among those rising to their feet.
Knight's comment seemed to refer to Paterno's failure to alert anyone beyond his superiors at the school when he was told of a sex abuse allegation against former assistant Jerry Sandusky. That inaction was a major reason university trustees fired him on Nov. 9, less than three months before his death.
Knight also asked, "Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?"
The memorial was held at the Bryce Jordan Center where former players and others lauded not just Paterno's accomplishments but the man himself.
"Bless us this day as we honor and celebrate one of your greatest gifts to the world -- Joe Paterno,'' the Rev. Matthew Laffey said in the opening prayer.
A short time later, after a video montage, former star Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge said,
"No one individual has ever done more for a university anywhere in the country than what Joe Paterno did for this school.''
The line drew applause, and Blackledge was followed on the podium in the darkened arena by Lauren Perrotti, a Penn State student and Paterno fellow.
The service served as both a tribute and catharsis for the emotion-wracked school.
The coach's death Sunday at age 85 came less than three months after his stunning ouster as head coach in the wake of child sex-abuse charges against a retired assistant, Jerry Sandusky.
The campus has been torn by anger over the Sandusky scandal and Paterno's firing, but this week thousands of alumni, fans, students and former players in Happy Valley have remembered Paterno for his record-setting career, his love for the school and his generosity.
Charles V. Pittman, a member of Paterno's first recruiting class, made the first reference to the turmoil at the event.
"Despite being pushed way from his beloved game, and under the extreme pressure of the events of the past few months, Joe's grace was startling,'' said Pittman, senior vice president for publishing at Schurz Communications Inc., and a member of the Board of Directors of The Associated Press.
Many Penn Staters found themselves reflecting on Paterno's impact and the road ahead.
"What's Joe's legacy? The answer, is his legacy is us,'' former NFL and Nittany Lions receiver Jimmy Cefalo said Wednesday before Paterno's funeral. He was on the speakers list Thursday.
Public viewings were held Tuesday and Wednesday morning, before the funeral and burial service for Paterno on Wednesday afternoon at the campus interfaith center where family members attended church services.
Cefalo, who played for Penn State in the `70s, said it will be the most difficult speech of his life. But he offered a hint of what he might say.
"Generations of these young people from coal mines and steel towns who he gave a foundation to,'' Cefalo said. ``It's not (the Division I record) 409 wins, it's not two national championships, and it's not five-time coach of the year (awards). It's us.''
As with all Paterno-related events this week, the crowd included well-known figures from the sports world. New Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had a seat near the front, where Paterno's widow, Sue, sat with her children and grandchildren.
Also in the seats were former Penn State and NFL players Franco Harris and Matt Millen, along with former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. So was former Nittany Lions quarterback Daryll Clark.