But once those larger-than-life monuments receded from view, Paterno was buried as he lived: simply.
With the sun setting behind them, the coach's family gathered at an unassuming cemetery along one of State College's busiest thoroughfares for a quiet burial service. Yards away lay the plots where Centre County buries its unidentified dead.
"It was simple in a Joe way," said former Nittany Lion and NFL running back Ki-Jana Carter. "For me, it was very emotional."
The ceremony marked the end of a second day of public mourning for the university's legendary coach, known as much for his 409 career wins as for the dozens of simple, anodyne encounters that mourners shared when asked why they felt compelled to send him off.
A brush past him as he walked to campus each morning along Park Avenue from his simple ranch-style home. A dinner at Chili's one booth over from Paterno and his wife, Sue. A quick smile and "hello" during his regular Saturday bank visits.
Stephen Molitierno - a 1977 Penn State alum and the last person through the line at a public viewing ceremony - recalled that his college roommate, on his way to a wedding, once spotted Paterno at a toll booth along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. When the man later spotted the coach at the same wedding and told him they had passed each other on the road earlier, Paterno responded:
"I had to get to a Wal-Mart. I forgot my belt," Molitierno recounted.
Even the actor Billy Baldwin - one of a litany of celebrities to make an appearance at Tuesday's 10-hour viewing - had only fleeting, folksy memories of Paterno. One of the last to attend the public viewing, Baldwin said he hadn't known the coach well and hadn't attended Penn State but once went to dinner at the Paternos' house while in town.
"They welcomed me into their home with a big pasta dinner," he said as gawkers snapped cellphone photos. "I just felt like I needed to be here."
Many pointed to Paterno's approachability to explain why they had come so quickly to his defense in November, when the university's board of trustees voted to fire him over his handling of child sexual-abuse allegations against a longtime former assistant.
When Paterno was made aware in 2002 of an incident in which former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky allegedly was seen raping a young boy in team showers, Paterno reported it to university administrators, not the police. He was also blamed for not vigorously following up on the allegation.
"Because he was such an everyday guy, it made you think what you would have done if you were in that situation," said Susan Marchmann, one of a group of about 10 parked across the street from the Pine Hall cemetery, where Paterno would be laid to rest.
By afternoon, family, former players, and friends began to arrive at the campus's Pasquerilla Spiritual Center for his private funeral service. Sue Paterno arrived with her family on a blue team bus - the same one the Nittany Lions rode to Saturday games at Beaver Stadium. She sat in the first seat behind the driver - her husband's customary spot.
Other sports-world celebrities, including Nike cofounder Phil Knight and former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, followed.
Assistant coach Mike McQueary, the witness to what he described as a sexual attack on a child by Sandusky and the person who advised Paterno of it, came within moments of Tim Curley, the university's former athletic director, who is charged in the case. The two did not interact.
Meanwhile, thousands lined up along College Avenue for the motorcade that came after. A group of 20 stood on a balcony displaying signs that read "We Love You, Joe" and "Legends Never Die." Mick Orlando, a Penn State senior from Broomall, clutched a portrait of Paterno that his father had given him the day he left for college in 2008.
"He said you have four years to get this signed and autographed by Joe," Orlando said. "I never had the chance."
At Beaver Stadium - where dozens of rabid Nittany Lions fans camp out the night before home games in a huddle of tents dubbed Paternoville - John Tecce, the president of the group, had waited nervously, not sure what he would do when the hearse passed by.
"I had thought about what this moment would be like," he said. "But I was never really prepared."
Normally, Paterno's arrival on the blue bus with his team on Saturdays was met by shouts and raucous cheers. On this day, he was met with respectful and awed silence.
A public memorial rally expected to draw 16,000 is scheduled for Thursday at the university's Bryce Jordan Center. Tickets are sold out.
Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.
Inquirer staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick contributed to this article.