STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – They stood outside for hours on a winter afternoon, waiting to pay their respects to the late Joe Paterno. The line snaked down a long block on the Penn State campus.
Inside a campus spiritual centre, the coach’s body lay in a closed, hardwood casket topped by a spray of white roses. About six feet away sat a stylized black-and-white picture of the man who became lovingly known on campus as “JoePa,” smiling and peering out through his trademark thick-rimmed glasses.
Three days of public mourning began Tuesday for a Penn State community already racked by months of turmoil. The 85-year-old Paterno — a Hall of Fame coach and the face of the university — died Sunday of lung cancer. He had been ousted just days before learning of his diagnosis in November, forced out of his job in the wake of child sex-abuse charges against a former assistant.
“We’re not going to focus on the bad, we’re going to pull together and focus on the good,” said Brittany Yingling, 23, of Altoona, donning a blue Penn State knit cap with “Paterno” in bold white letters emblazoned on the front. “He’s going to leave a lasting legacy on so many people.”
And thousands showed up, lining a main campus artery for a chance to make the walk, single file, past Paterno’s casket, which had an “honour guard” of two Penn State players — one past and one present. Some mourners stopped for a moment of reflection, or to genuflect in the interfaith hall.
Others fought back tears and sniffles. The only other sounds were the clicks from media photographers, taking occasional pictures.
Paterno won 409 games and two national championships over his a 46-year career admired by peers as much for its longevity as its success. Paterno also took as much pride in the program’s graduation rates, often at or close to the top of the Big Ten.
“I came to pay my respects to a great man, that has nothing to do with victories,” said Paterno’s longtime assistant and defensive co-ordinator, Tom Bradley. “A lot of his victories people don’t even know about.”
Large windows bathed the white-walled hall at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center in light on a cloudy day. Some of Paterno’s family attend services at the centre.
Members of the public were preceded by the family, including two of Paterno’s sons. Scott Paterno and Jay Paterno — the former Nittany Lions quarterback coach — spent some time shaking hands and thanking well-wishers before they exited the building.
“Going in there, waiting two hours in line, it was worth every second of it,” said Rob Gressinger, a Penn State junior. “I’ve lost all my grandparents and the feeling is the exact same thing … Feels like you lost one of your own.”
Also paying respects privately Tuesday morning were former and current players and coaches. Members of the current team wore dark suits and arrived in three blue Penn State buses, the same ones that once carried Paterno and the team to games at Beaver Stadium on fall Saturdays.
Among the former players was Mike McQueary. As a graduate assistant to Paterno in 2002, he went to the coach saying he had witnessed former defensive co-ordinator Jerry Sandusky assaulting a boy in the shower at the Penn State football building. Paterno relayed that to his bosses — including the head of campus police — but university trustees felt he should have done more, and it played into their decision to oust the longtime coach on Nov. 9. That came four days after Sandusky was charged with child sex-abuse counts.
Dressed in a blue coat and tie with a white shirt, the school colours, McQueary was among those at an event that was to stretch late into Tuesday night. McQueary declined comment after leaving the viewing.
Earlier Tuesday, former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers great Franco Harris, a vocal critic of the university trustees, also came to say goodbye. Others included NFL receivers Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood, Norwood’s father and Baylor assistant coach Brian Norwood and former quarterback Daryll Clark — who also served as an honour guard.
Texans receiver Bryant Johnson, a nine-year NFL veteran, said he decided to attend Penn State out of high school in Baltimore because “he wanted to play for a legendary coach.”
“I wanted to play for someone that instilled the values that he believed in,” Johnson. “I wanted to play for someone who believed in guys graduating.”
Paterno was beloved as much by others in the community for his philanthropic efforts, such as donating millions back to the university for projects including the campus library bearing the family name. Paterno Library sits a short walk across the street from the spiritual centre.
“He did so much for this town and school and the students. It wasn’t all football,” said Martha Edwards of Jersey Shore, Pa. She isn’t a graduate but decided to attend anyway.
“Right over there is the library with his name on it,” she said. “Nobody comes any better than him.”
There is another public viewing Wednesday at the interfaith centre, and after that Paterno’s family will hold a private funeral and procession through State College.
On Thursday, the school’s basketball arena will be the site of a public service called “A Memorial for Joe.” Tickets were quickly snapped up for the event, even though there was a two-per-person limit for those ordering.
Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo contributed to this report.