UNIVERSITY PARK -- Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight stuck up for his longtime friend and hero, Joe Paterno, and defended him with some sharply pointed words during Thursday's memorial.
"If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response," Knight said.
Those words brought the crowd of 12,000 at the Bryce Jordan Center to its feet with thunderous applause, the loudest of the 2 1/2-hour memorial.
Knight also had strong words aimed at the school's Board of Trustees, which fired Paterno on Nov. 9 in the immediate aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse allegations.
"Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?" Knight asked.
Knight defended Paterno's actions from 2002, when the coach first learned from then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary about an alleged sexual encounter in a shower between Sandusky and a young boy.
Knight said Paterno "gave full disclosure to his superiors, information that went up the chains to the head of the campus police and the president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world-class university, and by a president with an outstanding national reputation."
Knight has a great reputation as a businessman, turning Nike into one of the world's most successful companies. He's ranked by Forbes as the 24th richest person in the United States with a net worth of $13.1 billion.
Knight began his speech Thursday by joking about how, despite being at Nike for 48 years, "Some might consider me a short-timer," referencing Paterno's 61 years at Penn State.
Knight and Nike have long sponsored offseason retreats for college football coaches, and those helped him and Paterno build a strong friendship over the years. Knight told a story about how Paterno, at a retreat 15 years ago, took the stage to do a duet of "Wild Thing" with then-Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel.
"Joe didn't hesitate," Knight said. "He jumped up on the stage, and while not the most artistic performance ever, it was loud and enthusiastic."
Paterno received an undisclosed amount of money from Nike as part of his compensation package during his coaching tenure, and new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will be getting $350,000 per year from Nike, according to contract details released by the university.
Knight's speech started with humor and memories but began to take on a much more serious tone about halfway through, when he gave his thoughts on the scandal and how much Paterno meant to him.
"Never once did he let me down," Knight said. "Not one time."
Knight closed his speech by saying, "Who's going to be my hero now? It's a question everyone in this arena should ask, and I do not have an answer for you. But I can tell you this much: That old hero set a standard that will live forever."
Mirror Staff Writer Cory Giger is at 949-7031.