When Penn State takes the field against Texas A & M in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 in San Antonio, Joe Paterno will be calling the shots for the 500th time as head coach of the Nittany Lions. That's history.

Gary Darnell, meanwhile, will be making his first appearance as head coach of the Aggies.

Also his last. That's history of another sort.

Darnell, who has been Texas A & M's defensive coordinator for the past two seasons, was named interim head coach on Nov. 24, the day after embattled coach Dennis Franchione resigned under pressure - and that resignation ironically came less than 24 hours after the Aggies won their biggest game of the year, a 38-30 upset of then-No. 13 Texas.

Two days after A & M athletic director Bill Byrne handed over the program to Darnell for temporary safekeeping, he hired Mike Sherman, a former head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, as Franchione's successor. Sherman, now the assistant head coach of the Houston Texans, will finish out the NFL season before assuming his new duties in College Station sometime in January.

All of which leaves Darnell, 59, in limbo.

Asked if the Alamo Bowl will serve as a stage for him to "audition" for another coaching job, Darnell, who has received no assurances he will be retained by Sherman, said he isn't looking at it that way at all.

"I've been on the stage plenty," said Darnell, who has a 52-79 head-coaching record in stints at Tennessee Tech and Western Michigan, as well as another turn as an interim coach, at Florida. "I don't need any more auditions.

"There's plenty of opportunities out there for me, whether it's in football or out of football."

The Lions (8-4) and the Aggies (7-5) are coming off regular seasons in which the widely held perception is that both teams underachieved.

Picked to finish in the top 25 of almost every preseason poll, Penn State ended on a down note, blowing a 24-7 third-quarter lead to lose, 35-31, at Michigan State 2 weeks ago. The Lions - who climbed as high as No. 10 in the Associated Press rankings after they got off to a 3-0 start in which they outscored their opponents, 135-34 - received only one point in the most recent balloting. That means they received a single mention at No. 25 from one of 65 voters.

Texas A & M's shocker over Texas was its second straight victory over the Longhorns, the first time the Aggies had beaten their archrivals back-to-back since four straight win from 1991-94. A & M had a nice start, too, opening 5-1. But then the bottom fell out with four losses in five games - three of them in consecutive weeks to nationally ranked Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri - before the upset of Texas.

"We take a lot of pride in being able to beat the University of Texas for the second year in a row," Darnell said. "But it's kind of a Catch-22 because now we have to play Penn State. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing."

For his part, Paterno was entertaining no suggestions that his team had failed to perform up to its capabilities.

"Obviously, we would have liked to win more games," said Paterno, who turns 81 on Dec. 21. "We've got a pretty good football team. We don't have a great team, but we have a good team.

"We should be competitive with Texas A & M. I have not seen a lot of Texas A & M, but I did see them against Texas for maybe 2 1/2 quarters. It'll be a challenge to play them."

This will mark the second time Paterno has taken a Penn State team to the Alamo Bowl. In the Lions' only previous appearance, they blanked Texas A & M, 24-0, in 1999.

"We had a great time the last time we were down there," JoePa recalled. "San Antonio's just a wonderful city. [The Alamodome] is a great stadium. It'll be a lot of fun for us. There's so many things to do down there.

"I just hope we can play well."

This marks the fourth time Darnell - who also has been an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, SMU, North Carolina, Kansas State, Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas - has worked a sideline opposite Paterno, whom he described as "one of our most cherished coaches."

"There's been a pit in my stomach every time," he said. "This guy's going for his 500th game and I'm just trying to win one. It's daunting."

Paterno, who was selected for enshrinement in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, put off his induction for a year after he suffered a broken left leg at Wisconsin and was unable to attend the black-tie awards banquet in New York.

He'll be at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel tomorrow to receive the delayed honor. His plaque will be hung next summer in the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind. *