UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania (CNN) — Joe Paterno’s family, former players and others in the Penn State community gathered Thursday to celebrate the late football coach, describing him as a consummate teacher, a tough competitor and man of integrity.
“An impact has been made,” his son, Jay Paterno, told the roughly 16,000 people who packed the university’s basketball arena. “That impact has a lasting legacy: It is in the people he reached, and the people he taught.”
The legendary coach’s career with the Nittany Lions abruptly ended last fall amid criticism of his response to alleged child sexual abuse by former assistant Jerry Sandusky. While many speakers chose not to dwell on that saga, Nike Chairman Phil Knight — who referred to Paterno, whom he’d met decades earlier, as his “hero” — elicited a loud, long standing ovation when he rose to the former coach’s defense.
“If there is a villain in that tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it,” Knight said, pointing out that the then coach told his superiors in 2002 after being told that Sandusky had allegedly sexually molested a boy.
Other speakers offered anecdotes and explained Paterno’s personal influence on them, as well as how he had helped shape the Nittany Lions’ football program and the university. Kenny Jackson, Penn State’s first wide receiver to earn All-American honors, said that all the praise from ex-players, friends and students alike might have perturbed a man who was quick to brush off compliments during his life.
“He never thought he was the show,” Jackson said. “But today, my teacher, you have no choice. Today we are going to show you how much we love you.”
Paterno, 85, died at a local hospital Sunday morning after battling lung cancer.
His passing elicited an emotional response in and around the central Pennsylvania campus, including from thousands who lined the streets Wednesday to watch a hearse carrying the legendary coach drive through campus to Paterno’s final resting place. Students, fans and alumni tossed flowers and wept as Paterno’s funeral procession rolled past Beaver Stadium, where he paced the sidelines for decades.
Thursday’s public memorial service at the Bryce Jordan Center capped three days of mourning.
The speakers included Lauren Perrotti, one of the first Paterno Liberal Arts Undergraduate Fellows; Susan Welch, dean of the College of Liberal Arts; and Jeff Bast, who became the first mayor of “Paternoville” in the mid-2000s while camping out trying to secure top-notch football tickets.
The majority were Paterno’s former players, with one for each of the decades Paterno served as the program’s head coach.
Former standout quarterback Todd Blackledge said Paterno stood for teamwork, loyalty and competition. He and others credited the former coach for making Penn State a destination, both for talented players and for students.
“No one person has ever done more … than Joe Paterno did for this school,” Blackledge said.
Jimmy Cefalo, another Nittany Lion star who went on to play in the NFL and later joined the media, said it would be incomplete to judge Paterno based on his impressive coaching credential. Those include two national championships, five undefeated seasons and 409 wins in his 46 years as Penn State’s head coach.
Instead, Cefalo and several others referred to what they called Paterno’s “grand experiment” of demanding success both on the gridiron and in the classroom from his players. Several speakers pointed to his sense of perspective and caring nature, including well after they had graduated.
“Joseph Vincent Paterno was a great football coach, but his life can never, ever be measured in wins or championships,” said Christian Marrone, who saw his playing career end prematurely by injuries but went on to a career as a lawyer and key figure in the U.S. Department of Defense. “The greatness and the legacy of Joe Paterno lies in each of us.”
Paterno’s teams finished in the top 25 national rankings 35 times, according to his official Penn State biography. And on October 29, he became the winningest coach in major college football history.
Then, days later, Pennsylvania authorities announced a long slate of sexual abuse allegations against Sandusky, who worked under Paterno as a coach for three decades. The grand jury report included a 2002 incident, in which then graduate assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno that he’d seen Sandusky molest a young boy in a shower in the campus’s football complex.
Paterno passed the report on to two university executives, whom authorities later accused of misleading investigators and failing to report the abuse properly. In the final interview before his death, Paterno told The Washington Post that he felt inadequate to deal with the situation.
Knight, for one, said “never once did he let me down” — including Paterno’s action in this incident.
“He gave full disclosure to his superiors,” the Nike chairman said. “The matter was in the hands of a world-lass university.”
Knight’s defense stirred a strong reaction from David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He claimed that Paterno “did the absolute bare minimum,” and said that Sandusky’s victims have been forgotten.
“Nothing that anyone can say can hurt Joe Paterno,” said Clohessy, whose group is outspoken on issues related to child sexual abuse. “Plenty of comments can hurt these wounded victims and their families. And (Knight’s) is among the most callous.”
Jay Paterno, the coach’s son, did not mention Sandusky by name or the 2002 incident, but he did highlight how his father had carried himself in the subsequent firestorm.
“Faced with obstacles and changes that would have left a lesser man bitter, … he never wavered in his belief in Penn State,” said the younger Paterno, adding his father “left this world with a clear conscience.” “He never spoke ill … and he never wanted anyone to feel badly for him.”
Another mourner had told him that his “father had millions of children and grandchildren.” They were not just his own five children and 17 grandchildren, or even his hundreds of players, but the many more in the Penn State community that he’d touched, Jay Paterno said.
Jay Paterno ended his remarks by recalling the words he whispered into his father’s ear, shortly before he died Sunday morning.
“You did all you could do. You’ve done enough. We all love you. You won. You can go home now,” he said.