“There is a villainous tragedy,” Knight said, staring out at some 12,000 mourners, “that lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it. . . . It leads me to this question: Who is the real trustee of Penn State University?”
Knight’s words struck the Bryce Jordan Center like a thunderclap, lifting the entire crowd to its feet for a roaring, standing ovation that lasted for several moments. When Knight was done speaking, he turned and marched off the stage and back behind a black curtain.
In a 2-hour 15-minute service that otherwise touched all the expected notes — from the touching and humorous stories of a half-dozen of Paterno’s former players, to the heart-wrenching eulogy delivered by Paterno’s son, Jay — Knight was the only speaker who went anywhere near the scandal that, at least to the world beyond State College, tainted the 85-year-old coach’s legacy.
Elsewhere across the country, there may still be ambiguity toward Paterno, who died Sunday after a three-month battle with lung cancer.
Elsewhere, folks may associate Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I history, with the child sex-abuse scandal that ripped apart the university in November, when a former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with assaulting 10 boys over a 15-year span. Two university officials were charged with perjury in an alleged cover-up, while Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired by the school’s board of trustees for failing to act decisively enough.
But here, where Paterno coached football for 61 years, the last 46 of those as head coach, and where he and his wife, Sue, became known as surrogate parents to the entire community, there is no ambiguity — only love and reverence.
“He never took a compliment. He never thought he was the show,” Kenny Jackson, a former all-American wide receiver and assistant coach under Paterno, told the crowd to get the service started. “But today, my teacher, you have no choice. Today we’re going to show you how much we love you.”
The tributes that followed were pitch-perfect: Speeches from one player from each of the six decades Paterno’s career spanned. Four video tributes. Testimonials from two non-football-playing students and the dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Everyone managed to find some new way to illuminate Paterno’s impact on the world beyond the gridiron.