If this is a race, Joe Paterno seems determined to outlast Bobby Bowden to the finish line and become the last of college football's coaching dinosaurs left standing.

For those who revere Penn State's etched-in-stone traditions and the Mount Rushmore-worthy figure who has overseen the program since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, that is not necessarily a bad thing. But for those who value the past but don't want it to infringe upon the future, change is inevitable and perhaps even overdue.

Only last week, it was announced that, although the 78-year-old Bowden would be back in 2008, his 33rd season as head coach at Florida State, Seminoles offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher was his designated successor. The term used by FSU president T.K. Wetherell to describe Fisher's upgraded status was "head coach-in-waiting."

Whether Fisher takes over sooner rather than later really isn't the issue. At least there is a plan in place in Tallahassee that should make for an orderly transition whenever Bowden decides to step aside, or is gently nudged into retirement.

"Every year I'll just re-sign and tell 'em I want to coach another year," Bowden said. "I couldn't ask for anything better than that."

There is no such arrangement for the transfer of power in Happy Valley, where Paterno, the most intransigent of coaching's vanishing breed of stay-put lifers, seems determined to hang on.

Paterno, who turns 81 Dec. 21, is contracted to coach the Nittany Lions through 2008, but he has dropped boulder-sized hints that he just might stick around for another 4 or 5 years, health permitting. He insists he's still having too much fun coaching at Penn State - where the former Ivy League quarterback arrived in 1950 as an assistant under Rip Engle before succeeding Engle in 1966 - to consider stepping away.

Paterno's disinclination to offer any real insight into how long he intends to remain does no favors to longstanding members of his veteran staff, especially defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, a Penn State alumnus who has served his old coach for 29 years with some expectation that his loyalty would garner him at least as much consideration as was given to Fisher, who has been at Florida State all of one season.

"I've got a lot of good coaches. That's why I'm not ready to get out of here," Paterno said yesterday, during a news conference that ostensibly was called for him to discuss Penn State's Dec. 29 Alamo Bowl game with Texas A & M, but, not unexpectedly, gravitated more toward his own future plans, or lack thereof.

Paterno is a history buff, so he probably has at least some idea that every game he coaches adds to his career like the inner rings of an old, stately tree. Not that he professes to care much about any of that.

The fact that the Alamo Bowl will mark his 500th game as head coach of the Lions?

"Haven't thought about it," he said. Same goes for his thoughts about being the undisputed king of all bowl coaches, with a 22-10-1 record, including a 24-0 shutout of Texas A & M in the 1999 Alamo Bowl. No coach has logged more bowl appearances, or victories, than the Penn State icon.

Nor has Paterno apparently given much thought to the goings-on in college football if they do not directly relate to what is happening in his own small piece of it.

Paterno professed to be unaware that Michigan had yet to hire a coach to replace Lloyd Carr, nor did he have any knowledge of Florida State's naming of Fisher as the heir apparent to Bowden.

"I don't have any e-mail," Paterno said. "I don't have any of that stuff, that's No. 1. No. 2, when you don't pick up the paper, you can't read it, right?"

So the critics, however few or many there are of them, go unheard, allowing Paterno to contentedly go about his business.

"I like to coach," he admitted. "I feel comfortable I can get up in the morning and do a good job.

"Hopefully, I'm not going to be a crotchety old man and, you know, not handle it. When it's time to go, just go, right? But I feel so good now. I hate to put a time frame on when I'm going to get out of there. I think when I start to get that feeling, I'll sit down with the right people and say, 'Hey, maybe we ought to start talking about me getting out of here, if it benefits us.' But right now that hasn't even come up."

There is a school of thought that Paterno, as much as he admires Bowden, wants to stick around long enough to retire as the all-time winningest coach. Right now he has 371 victories, two behind Bowden. The image is of Gen. George Patton, vowing to get to Messina with his army before Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery gets there with his.

"I ought to call Bobby and see when he's going to roll over," Paterno said, with a laugh. *