University Park, PA – If there was a common thread for Thursday's public memorial service for Joe Paterno, it's that he was much more than a football coach.
He might have recorded 409 victories during a 46-year tenure as the Nittany Lions' head coach, but he was also a major proponent of academics and achieving success with honor, not merely winning.
Everybody who spoke -- former players from across the decades, the dean of Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts, students, Paterno's son Jay -- stressed the effect Paterno had on their lives off the football field, right up until he died Sunday from lung cancer at the age of 85.
The praise of Paterno's integrity ran counter to the criticism he faced in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse case -- that he didn't do enough to stop the alleged abuse. The school's trustees fired Paterno in November over the phone.
But most of the praise indirectly served as a reminder that Paterno was a man of generosity and integrity. Nike chairman Phil Knight, on the other hand, directly addressed and challenged criticism of Paterno, a man he said was his hero.
"In the year in question it turns out he gave full disclosure to his superiors, information that went up the chain to the head of the campus police and the president of the school," Knight said. "The matter was in the hands of a world-class university and by a president with an outstanding national reputation.
"Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: there is a villain in this tragedy, and it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response to it."
Knight then received a standing ovation from the crowd at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center. Jay Paterno later said his father left the world with a "clear conscience."
Paterno's firing was extremely controversial and polarizing, prompting some to staunchly defend the former head coach and blame the trustees for succumbing to pressure, while others saw the firing as justified. Still others saw Paterno as a good man who made a grave mistake.
Knight was referring to how Paterno, after being told in 2002 by an assistant that he saw Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the university showers, brought the matter to his Penn State bosses.
Paterno, in the Washington Post interview published January 14, said he didn't know how to handle hearing the report and wasn't sure he would have been able to comprehend the graphic details, if the assistant -- Mike McQueary -- had described them. Paterno said he was unsure of how to handle the information he had, and backed away after turning over the information.
Sandusky, an assistant coach at Penn State from 1969-99, faces more than 50 counts of charges that he sexually abused young boys, as recently as 2009.
The scandal changed how some judged his career and, coming so close to his death, affected Paterno's decades-old legacy as one of Pennsylvania's most admired public figures.
But Thursday's memorial was not only a chance for family and friends to remember Paterno, but to burnish his legacy.
Former players Kenny Jackson, Todd Blackledge, Charlie Pittman, Jimmy Cefalo, Chris Marrone and Michael Robinson were among the speakers, each representing a decade of Paterno's coaching career. Current linebacker Mike Mauti also spoke.
Each described the affect Paterno had on their lives. Pittman told a story about how Paterno once pushed him so hard he was in tears, and wanted to return home. But Pittman's father talked him out of it, and Pittman played for Penn State's undefeated teams in 1968 and '69.
"Joe wasn't trying to build perfection," said Pittman, whose son later went on to play for the Nittany Lions. "He was bit-by-bit building a habit of excellence. He was building a proud program for the school, the state, and the hundreds of men he looked over for a half century."
Paterno's program came to be known as the 'Grand Experiment,' which included the pursuit of athletic and academic success.
Cefalo, a Penn State receiver in the 1970s, told a story of how he finished his degree during his junior year, and was going to enjoy his senior year after finishing the football season.
He recalled Paterno saying, "Look at this class schedule! This is beneath you."
Each tribute described how Paterno changed people's lives for the better, and most featured a specific moment when the speakers realized Paterno's influence.
It was Blackledge being encouraged to stick with the team despite having a bad roommate, with whom he later won a national title. It was Cefalo walking into his parents' house to tell them he had decided to attend another school, only to see Paterno sitting there, eating pasta and drinking wine. It was Robinson not knowing much about Paterno before sitting down with the coach, and realizing Paterno wasn't lying to him, wasn't promising anything more than a chance to play and a quality education.
It was Susan Welch, dean of Penn State's College of Liberal Arts, recalling a breakfast when Paterno stressed the importance of the school's classics department. It was Lauren Perrotti, a Paterno fellow at Penn State, remembering how the former head coach thanked her after she thanked him for funding she received through the fellows program.
Jay Paterno gave the final speech of the service, an emotional tribute that went from describing Joe's love for his wife, Sue, to Joe's drive to make an impact on people's lives.
"Fame and power never touched his soul," Jay said, "In the end, he takes his integrity with him forever."
On Sunday, Jay Paterno kissed his father and whispered into his ear that he had won, he had done enough and could go home now.
And on Thursday afternoon, as a lone trumpeter closed the service by slowly playing 'Hail to the Lions' before tens of thousands of people in honor of Joe Paterno, it was clear where home was.