Pugnacious praise at final 'Memorial for Joe'

The audience packs the Bryce Jordan Center at Pennsylvania State University for the "Memorial for Joe."
The audience packs the Bryce Jordan Center at Pennsylvania State University for the "Memorial for Joe." (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 27, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - In a grainy video clip shown to the thousands who attended his final public memorial Thursday, former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno outlined a philosophy on mentoring that echoed in the words of every speaker that followed.

"Kids want someone to tell them how good they can be," he said in his distinctive high-pitched, Brooklyn-kissed voice.

And as students, family members, and football stars past and present took the stage to eulogize the longtime coach, who died Sunday at 85, one theme emerged in each of their remarks: They got the message.

From the international-studies major studying in a fellowship program named in Paterno's honor to Seattle Seahawks running back Michael Robinson, who flew in to State College from Pro Bowl practice in Hawaii, they described a man who had taught by example the importance of sportsmanship, academics, and teamwork over his six-decade career.

Few spoke of strokes of inspired coaching on the field or rousing locker room pep talks. Instead, nearly all referenced quiet moments: His promises of academic rigor while on recruiting trips to their kitchens and living rooms, phone calls to check in years after they had left his team and, in some cases, generosity that extended well beyond his financial gifts to the university.

Former player Christian Marrone recalled the surprise of a teammate who had left Penn State in the '90s to care for an ailing child when he learned that for years Paterno had anonymously donated money for the child's care.

"He took the sons of coal miners and steel mill workers and farmers in rural Pennsylvania," said Miami radio host and former Penn State wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo. "He gave us the idea that we could come together and do it the right way - the Paterno way."

The rally - dubbed "A Memorial for Joe" - marked the end of three days of public mourning organized by his family at the university. The events started Tuesday with more than 30,000 people lining up for a chance to view his casket and continued into Wednesday, when students, alumni, and fans crowded the streets of State College to escort his hearse to a private burial service at a State College cemetery.

But Thursday's event - with its 11 eulogists, including former players from every decade of Paterno's career - brought a sense of punctuation to the proceedings and exposed a throbbing current of anger over his dismissal Nov. 9.

It offered - for the first time - an open and public assessment from those closest to him of the events that defined the final months of his life.

"Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience," said his son Jay, his former quarterbacks coach. "His values and goals remained his rock." Penn State's board of trustees fired Paterno, after a grand jury charged Jerry Sandusky, one of his former assistants, with child sex abuse. Trustees cited Paterno's failure to report to outside authorities allegations involving Sandusky that were brought to him in 2002.

The decision has remained controversial in the months since, with many of Paterno's staunchest defenders maintaining that he fulfilled his duty by alerting Penn State administrators and blaming them for failing to fully investigate.

"If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response," said Nike chairman Phil Knight. Listing Paterno's accomplishments, he later questioned: "Who is the real trustee at this university?"

Knight spoke most forcefully against the board's decision in a speech that brought the crowd to its feet. But others, including Robinson, slipped in subtle digs at administrators.

"I didn't realize the sharks that were out there coming after him," said Robinson, who led the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten championship and an Orange Bowl victory over Florida.

A year earlier, in 2004, a group of university administrators had encouraged Paterno to retire after four losing seasons.

"I know he was thinking to all those sharks, 'Look at me now,' " Robinson said Thursday, recounting the moments after the win.

Only one Penn State administrator - Susan Welch, dean of the College of Liberal Arts - spoke at the event. And many trustees - including Gov. Corbett - did not attend.

"All board members understand the pain and grief of the Paterno family and join with all Penn Staters to respect the great contributions Joe Paterno made," board spokeswoman Eleanor McManus said in a statement.

Safety concerns may also have played a factor. In the days after Paterno's death, several board members reported receiving hate mail and threatening notes.

Thousands more missed out on securing a ticket. All 10,000 free passes to the memorial were reserved within seven minutes of their posting on a university website earlier in the week.

Andy Atkins, 54, and Jerry Dorland, 66, kept rapt watch on a television screen from the bar at the Nittany Lion Inn. The pair drove up from the Philadelphia suburbs just to be close to Thursday's event, even though both had missed out on tickets.

"We just hoped to ride the wave and get some of the buzz that was here," said Dorland, sipping a "Peachy Paterno" shot - an ice cream and Peach Schnapps concoction named in the coach's honor.

But now that the mourning is over, questions still linger over the campus.

What bruises will looming trials against Sandusky and former administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, charged with lying to a grand jury, bring?

How will trustees convince prospective students and donors that Penn State can emerge from the scandal?

And can a figure like Paterno - a man who helped turn a technical college into one of the state's premier academic and athletic powerhouses - ever rise here again?

"Who is going to be my hero now?" asked Knight, the Nike chairman. "It's a question everyone in this arena could ask. I don't have an answer for you."

Staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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