STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight got a standing ovation at Joe Paterno’s public memorial Thursday for defending the late coach’s response to an accusation of child sex abuse against a former assistant.
At a ceremony filled with lavish praise that would likely have embarrassed the school’s beloved coach, Knight waded into a subject that had been virtually ignored since Paterno died on Sunday from lung cancer — the immediate cause of his firing after 46 seasons leading Penn State’s football team to a record-setting 409 wins.
University trustees have said a major reason Paterno was ousted Nov. 9 was that he failed to alert anyone beyond his two superiors at the school when he was told of an abuse allegation against former assistant Jerry Sandusky in 2002. Sandusky was charged with dozens of child sex abuse counts on Nov. 5, two school officials were charged with perjury and former school president Graham Spanier was pushed out the same night as Paterno.
Commenting on those events, Knight said, “It turns out (Paterno) 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.”
Knight added, “…this much is clear to me. If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno.”
The remark drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 12,000 at the Bryce Jordan Center — with Paterno’s widow, Sue, and former defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, among those rising to their feet.
“Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?” Knight asked.
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 stellar career, his love for the school and his generosity.
That made Knight’s remarks even more surprising.
Paterno’s son and former quarterbacks coach, Jay, also got a standing ovation near the end of the ceremony when he imitated his raised-in-Brooklyn father’s voice, telling the audience to “Sit down! Sit down!”
Then, growing serious, he told the crowd, “Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience.”
Earlier in ceremony, the focus was praise for Paterno and fond memories.
“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.
Charles V. Pittman, speaking for players from the 1960s, called Paterno a lifelong influence and inspiration.
“Now, with grown children grandkids and 42 years removed from my playing days, I thought Joe Paterno had taught me all that he could teach me. I was wrong,” he said. “Despite being pushed away from his beloved game, and under the extreme pressure of the events of the past few months, Joe’s grace was startling.”
Pittman said Paterno pushed his young players hard, once bringing Pittman to tears in his sophomore year. 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, senior vice president for publishing at Schurz Communications Inc., an Indiana-based company that owns television and radio stations and newspapers, and a member of the Board of Directors of The Associated Press.
Thursday’s event brought to a close the public mourning period for Paterno.
Public viewings were held Tuesday and Wednesday morning at a campus spiritual center, followed by a funeral Mass, procession and burial for Paterno that afternoon.
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