TAMPA, Fla. - Joe Paterno put speculation about the "R" word - retirement - to rest a week before the Outback Bowl.
Now he's dismissing the next letter in the alphabet - S, as in "succession."
During his season wrapup press conference Sunday morning, Paterno emphatically rejected the idea that he's had or wants to have discussions concerning a potential successor.
When a reporter asked whether he anticipates a conversation about it with school president Graham Spanier and Tim Curley, Paterno talked through the question by saying, "no, no no!"
He enunciated each "no." His voice was even but firm, and his resolve, at 84 and coming off a 7-6 season after Saturday's 37-24 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl, amused the room full of reporters.
While his amazing desire to continue may be admirable, this also would be a very appropriate time, what with the all-time Division I-A victory record (401) safe forever and the Nittany Lions having performing well under their potential for several seasons.
But as has been the case for 20-plus years, Paterno is focused more on adding recruits and patching holes than he is concerned about public perception.
"I intend to be here," he said.
And without a co-pilot.
Paterno was named Rip Engle's associate head coach in 1965 - although that seemed to be news to him on Sunday - and took over a year later.
Fran Ganter was named to a similar capacity in 2000 because Paterno thought Ganter could succeed him. Ganter had turned down a chance to become head coach at Michigan State a few years earlier and was drawing interest.
"But I kept going," Paterno said, "and Franny got out of it" in 2004, two years after his wife, Karen, died suddenly.
Since then, Paterno has not wanted to promote any of his current assistants to that level because, he said Sunday, "I don't want to name a successor."
He said he's more concerned about making sure his assistant coaches are taken of "in case something happens to me." Penn State put severance packages in place for the assistants a couple of years ago and likely will continue to do so until Paterno's departure.
"I'm more interested in protecting the assistant coaches than I am anything else," he said. "I want to make sure they don't leave some guy hanging out there who doesn't have a job, who has got a lot of little kids. So we've made some arrangements for the staff."
One of the three assistants with young children is Paterno's son, Jay, who coaches the quarterbacks. Paterno has said in the past he doesn't want his son to succeed him, and while Paterno is hopeful for an in-house transition someday, the university may not share that position.
Meanwhile, it was ironic that Paterno publicly endorsed defensive coordinator Tom Bradley for the Pitt job Sunday but has made no such specific commitment to the PSU throne.
Athletic director Tim Curley met the media here a few days ago and probably would have preferred a root canal. Curley said he looks forward to the usual end-of-season meeting with Paterno, a process he conducts with all of Penn State's coaches.
And therein is part of the rub: While JoePa hangs on and wants to be consulted on the next coach, whenever that may be, Penn State, which has only been to two BCS games in the 13 years of the BCS existence, may have and may need a grander vision at that point.
It's tough to have a succession plan when the two parties involved don't agree on a successor. Or aren't talking about one.
And that's where we are, like it or not.
Penn State loves to boast, and understandably so, about its iconic national treasure that JoePa truly is.
At the same time, Paterno has said, "I haven't thought about getting out of it," and his reluctance if not outright refusal to help orchestrate the process - to work with the university, rather than against it - weakens the program's future and its ability to attract the best possible players and coaches to lead it into an expanded Big Ten.
Maybe Paterno will see 2011, the supposed last year of his contract, as the last hurrah.
Maybe the young team of 2010 will be equal to greater challenges next year, maybe beat Iowa and Ohio State, maybe stop having punts blocked, maybe start upsetting favored teams again.
If and when that happens, the subject of how long JoePa wants to continue coaching will go away.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or email@example.com.