STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Crediting him with building not just better athletes but better men, 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.
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 basketball 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.
"This much is clear to me: 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."
The ceremony was filled with lavish praise that probably would have embarrassed Paterno, who died of lung cancer Sunday at 85 after racking up 409 wins, more than any other major-college football coach, and leading his team to two national championships in his 46 seasons.
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 -- Susan Welch, dean of the college of liberal arts -- spoke at the memorial, which was arranged primarily by the Paterno family. No one from the Board of Trustees spoke.
Among the speakers were star athletes from each decade of Paterno's career, including Michael Robinson, who played 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, senior vice president for publishing at Schurz Communications Inc., an Indiana-based company that owns TV and radio stations and newspapers, and a member of the board of directors of The Associated Press.
"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," Pitman 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."
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."
"The greatness and the legacy of Joe Paterno lies within each of us, and no one, and I mean no one, can take that from him or from us," Marrone said.
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.