STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Joe Paterno was chomping on a slice of pizza with a "what are you guys doing here?" look on his face.

It had been three months since the Penn State coach last met with reporters, and in that span speculation about the 81-year-old football icon's contract status had reached a fever pitch.

Paterno is in the last year of his contract and already has met once with Penn State president Graham Spanier and director of athletics Tim Curley. Last week, Spanier declined to comment, but two university trustees said that contract negotiations had started badly and that each side had drawn its lines.

Paterno wants to coach at least two more years, maybe as many as five. Yesterday, he joked that he'd like to last another 10 years. According to the trustees, however, the administration wants a timetable for an exit - be it retirement or a succession plan. If push came to shove, his contract would not be renewed.

After leading the Nittany Lions through spring practice - his 43d as head coach - Paterno did not see the urgency.

"I don't even care if I get a contract," he said yesterday. "I'll be very frank with you."

"The university is fine with that, too, because they don't want to give him a contract, either," said a trustee, who requested anonymity.

Paterno has coached without a contract before, but that was done in good faith on both sides. His latest deal is the four-year extension he signed in May 2004. He later said he would be fine going year-to-year, but another trustee said the administration does not want to go such a route.

"If I wanted a contract, I would go ask for a contract," Paterno said. "If I've got to have a contract to keep my job here, I'm in the wrong place."

Paterno routinely meets with Spanier and Curley after football season, but the latest meeting was delayed in part because Paterno was ill in January. They finally met in early March in a meeting Paterno described as uneventful.

"We talked about what the situation was, because there was some pressure on some people about doing something," Paterno said. "I have no problem."

Curley did not return a phone call.

Lisa Powers, Penn State's director of public information, said the next meeting is scheduled "for the coming days or weeks."

According to Paterno, his situation isn't affecting his team, his assistants or recruiting. He said he still hasn't thought about who would succeed him if he had his wish, though he conceded the ultimate decision would lie with the administration. Still, he said he wants to do what's best for his staff.

"I didn't get here myself," Paterno said. "I've got a lot of assistant coaches that have knocked themselves out, stayed with me, been loyal to me. I'm not all of a sudden going to just wake up some morning and say, 'Hey, I'm gone, guys. You're on your own.' "

Some players have intimated that the attention has been a distraction, while others are focused on the future.

"I think everybody is comfortable with Coach Paterno, and that's something really we can't worry about," senior wide receiver Deon Butler said. "The university will deal with that. . . . Whether we lose the coach or not, we're still playing for each other."

Yesterday, reporters were invited to the entire practice session for the first time since anyone could remember. The Lions return 18 starters from last year's 9-4 squad. Penn State is 29-9 over the last three seasons, but 1-5 against Big Ten Conference powers Ohio State and Michigan in that span.

"We've won 75 percent of our games," Paterno said. "Three years ago, I'm coach of the year. . . . We're a couple of seconds away from playing for the national championship. Three straight bowls - three wins. I feel good about what we're doing."

Paterno said his health was fine, though he still is recovering from the broken leg he suffered on the sideline in 2006. It took more than two weeks to recover from the flu in January, he said.

"I probably babied myself another week or so," Paterno said. "I really feel good. My health's not a problem - believe me. If it were, I'd be starting to think about getting out of it. I don't want to be a martyr."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane

at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.