UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Joe Paterno plans to return in 2011 for his 46th season as Penn State's coach.
Paterno, who turns 84 Dec. 21, said Tuesday in his weekly news conference that he is excited about coming back. His three-year contract expires at the end of next season.
"I'm looking forward to it," Paterno said. "We've struggled a little bit this year with the youth, the injuries and the whole bit. We're not where I'd like us to be yet. But I think with a good spring and preseason practice we can be a pretty good football team next year. And I'd like to be part of it."
Athletic director Tim Curley said Tuesday he is not looking past the regular-season finale Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
"We are focused on the Michigan State game and helping our seniors and the team win their final home game," Curley said in a statement. "We're glad to hear of coach Paterno's excitement for next season. We share his optimism about the team's potential and look forward to our annual postseason discussion with coach Paterno about next year."
Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett was ecstatic to hear about Paterno's plans.
Catlett hopes to snag the Hall of Fame coach and his Nittany Lions for his Jan. 1 postseason game in Jacksonville, Fla.
A year ago, the Gator Bowl pitted Florida State's Bobby Bowden against his former team, West Virginia, in his final game as coach of the Seminoles.
"That's absolutely pretty good news that coach Paterno is coming back," Catlett said. "We hope we can get him here. We don't want to be known as the bowl game that ends a coach's career."
The Gator Bowl has tie-ins to the Big Ten Conference and the Southeastern Conference. Many have projected a Penn State-Florida game New Year's Day.
There's also an outside chance the Lions (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) could land in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa if they beat No. 11 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1).
"Obviously, we'd be tickled to death to have Penn State and coach Paterno here, but there are a few other bowls that pick in front of us," Catlett said. "We've heard all the Penn State-Florida speculation. We'd be OK with that. Sign us up."
As a bonus, Catlett said Bowden, Paterno's good friend and fellow Hall of Fame coach, will be in town for Gator Bowl festivities.
"Coach Bowden is getting inducted into the Gator Bowl Hall of Fame," Catlett said. "It would be real cool to have JoePa here with Bobby for a week."
Paterno, the winningest coach in Division I history with 401 victories, said his health is no longer an issue.
He had surgery on his leg in 2006 after being involved a sideline collision at Wisconsin and had hip replacement surgery in 2008. He also had laser eye surgery this past offseason, although he still wears glasses.
This past summer, intestinal issues caused Paterno to lose weight and limited his travel. He was forced to miss "Evening With Joe" appearances in Pittsburgh, Hershey and Philadelphia. He also missed a meeting of Big Ten athletic directors and coaches in Chicago.
"It wasn't as serious as people tried to make it out to be," Paterno said of his health issues.
This fall, Paterno cut back on his schedule during the season, including appearances at the weekly State College Quarterback Club luncheon and on his weekly radio call-in show. He also has delegated more authority to his assistant coaches, who have 153 years of experience combined at Penn State.
The Lions, who have won four of their past five games, start seven seniors. Eighteen players have missed time with injuries, and the team has lost four games by 20 or more points for the first time since 1897.
"The year's been hard because we've been a very young team and we've had an inordinate amount of injuries," Paterno said. "We've had to spend a lot of time rearranging things."
Penn State has a 58-17 record since 2005 under Paterno, the 10th best in the country. The Lions also have captured a share of two Big Ten championships and won four bowl games in that span.
From 2000-04, Penn State was 26-33, with four losing seasons out of five, and school administrators tried to force Paterno out.
Penn State has just five verbal commitments for its 2011 recruiting class, and Paterno has not visited a high school recruit since Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor in January 2008.
"If I go into a town these days, it's an alumni meeting," Paterno said. "There are always a lot of people who come around. There are so many demands on me when I get there."
Paterno's players are not surprised that he wants to return.
"He's still energetic on the field," middle linebacker Chris Colasanti said. "I've always believed when you're not excited to do the things that you love, then it's time to step back. He still loves to come out and coach and be vocal, and he has fun with it. We see that and we feed off that. I expected him to come back."
"It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he was here for a couple more years," quarterback Matt McGloin said.
Ron Musselman: email@example.com .