The three-year contract extension Joe Paterno agreed to yesterday was one more example of the great timing the Penn State coach, who will turn 82 on Sunday, has exhibited during his legendary career.

Bound for law school in 1950, he did a favor for Nittany Lions coach Rip Engle and ended up spending the next 58 years in State College. When college football, beset by late-1960s scandals, needed a white knight, he turned down a lucrative NFL offer and donned the armor. And when fans, alumni and sportswriters called for his head after miserable seasons in 2003 and 2004, his Nittany Lions went 11-1 in 2005, won the Orange Bowl, and quieted the critics.

At the dawn of the 2008 season, the last in a four-year deal he signed in 2004, Paterno was under pressure again. But the Nittany Lions' 11-1 record, a second Big Ten championship in four years, and another Rose Bowl berth made yesterday's action a virtual certainty.

The new deal was further vindication for Paterno, who through good years and bad, good health and bad, has continued to insist he will continue as Penn State's coach as long as he enjoyed the job.

It also reinforced the central fact in the entire Paterno conundrum, which has hovered uncomfortably over the program for at least a decade:

No one at Penn State, except perhaps his wife, Sue, is powerful enough to force the hand of the man who has won two national championships and a record 372 games, and brought athletic glory, increased reputation, and hundreds of millions in donations to what was once a remote agricultural school.

Bill Schreyer, the former Merrill Lynch executive, Penn State board of trustees chairman emeritus, and a major donor to the school, is a close ally and acquaintance of Paterno, as are the bulk of the 33 current trustees.

Tim Curley, the athletic director, who along with university president Graham Spanier made the decision to retain the coach, is a former Paterno player. So are five of the members of the board of trustees, the body that oversees the school's operations but that was happy to grant the decision-making power in this case to the president and AD.

Even Paterno's increased frailty - a broken leg in 2006 and this year's hip injury, which forced him into the coaches' box and the operating room - couldn't change anyone's mind.

"With the year he's had and the kind of recruiting class it seems like we're going to get, it looks like Joe could go on for a while," said Jim Meister, president of the Penn State Quarterback Club, a State College-based boosters club.

Before that turnaround 2005 season, Spanier and Curley met with the coach at his home and tried to persuade him to anoint a successor.

Paterno, they told him, could continue to be the face of the program, could continue to recruit, and, perhaps most important, could continue to raise money.

The coach, who despite his age maintains a rigorous pace, refused. The spectacular Nittany Lions season that followed validated his decision.

"I really don't know why [a succession plan] hasn't happened," said Meister, a 1959 Penn State graduate. "I can't tell you why Joe doesn't seem to want it. It almost makes you think Joe doesn't want his successor to come from in-house."

Among the candidates on his staff who have been mentioned as possible replacements are defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and defensive line coach Larry Johnson.

"Joe has always been loyal to his staff. That's what they've been selling at Penn State - continuity," said Meister. "That's why [Paterno's failure to designate a successor] doesn't make sense."

Outside candidates whose names have surfaced include Temple's Al Golden and Rutgers' Greg Schiano, two alumni who reportedly covet the job.

Again this year, Paterno faced constant questions about his future. Would the end of his contract provide him with a logical spot to step aside? Would university officials, eager to end the ambiguity surrounding their signature program, at last force him to name a successor? Grant him another contract? And how would his injuries factor into the decision?

When Penn State lost out on prized recruit Terrelle Pryor last year, there was speculation that the Western Pennsylvania quarterback, in part, chose Ohio State because of concerns about Paterno's status.

According to conversations with some of the leading figures around Paterno's program, including a member of the board of trustees, this 2008 season began with many in authority once again hoping the coach would agree to a succession plan.

"There clearly were different views about Joe [among the trustees]," said a member of that body who requested anonymity. "The administration would love him to retire and become an ambassador for the program and the university. Short of that, they'd like him to stay on but name a successor."

It's not clear whether Spanier and Curley raised those possibilities again during their recent meetings. Regardless, Paterno wasn't ready to go along.

Spanier, the school's president since 1995, was believed to be at the forefront of those eager to see Paterno become a kind of coach emeritus.

"Let's face it, in a lot of ways this is a clash of egos. Joe's got a big ego and so does Graham," said a person close to Paterno and the program who also asked that his name not be used.

This past summer, Spanier said he, Paterno and Curley would sit down after the season and discuss the coach's future. Those talks reportedly commenced after the coach's recent hip operation and culminated with yesterday's terse announcement:

"University President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley announced today an agreement that will provide for the opportunity of Coach Joe Paterno leading the football program through the 2011 season. It was also agreed that the parties might re-evaluate their circumstances and alter the arrangement by either shortening or extending its length as necessary."

That was it. Short, but with plenty of wiggle room.

"Spanier is a little troubled that Joe is at the center of everything," said the trustee. "He seems to be above all, including Spanier."

Still, even Penn State's president can't complain about what's been happening on the football field in Paterno's fifth decade as the Nittany Lions head coach.

"I think the trustees have to be happy with what they've seen this year," said Meister. "The team had a great season. Joe showed a willingness to delegate. I think he ceded some authority. . . . It's hard to knock what's going on."

Staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick can be reached at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.