SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Joe Paterno has been hearing the critics for a while. At 81, the Penn State coach knows that some people think he is too old for the job.

A Texas A&M cheerleader, however, took that thought a step too far Thursday night.

During an Alamo Bowl pep rally in front of a pro-Penn State crowd, an Aggies call leader was booed after he shouted that Paterno "is on his death bed and somebody needs to find him a casket."

Yesterday, during a news conference on the eve of tonight's game between Penn State and Texas A&M, Paterno said he was backstage with Aggies interim coach Gary Darnell and didn't initially hear the comment. His wife, Sue, told him what was said after he spoke to the crowd.

"I think everybody's got to take things with a grain of salt," Paterno said yesterday. "It's some young guy up there, and he's trying to be funny - maybe he's accurate, I don't know."

The unidentified student was sent home by school officials, according to team spokesman Alan Cannon. Texas A&M's interim president, Eddie Davis, and athletic director Bill Byrne also apologized to Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley.

Darnell said his wife, Sandra, was in tears when she apologized to Sue Paterno after the rally.

"I'd hate for anybody to think that's what Aggies are about," Darnell said.

Paterno was his usual glib self when discussing the incident.

"I don't particularly care about it," he said. "My mom used to say to me when they called me a wop walking down the street, 'Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.' "

Paterno's age often has been cited as a reason for retirement or for the Penn State administration not to renew his contract when it expires after the 2008 season. But Paterno, in his 42d season at the helm, claims he wants to coach for five more years, maybe more.

His persistence - and his resistance to Father Time - led to this exchange with Ray Saul, the retired former sports editor of the Hazleton Standard-Speaker:

Saul: I'm six weeks older than you are.

Paterno: I know you are, Ray.

Saul: My girlfriend said that you can still do it.

Paterno: What?

Saul: You're in great shape if you can still do it. I think you can still do it. You have been doing it and you will continue to do it.

Paterno: What are you talking about doing? [laughter] Holy smokes. I'm not Hugh Hefner, you know." [more laughter].

Though he is still bothered by a leg injury - the limb was broken last season when a player rolled into him on the sideline - Paterno has said repeatedly that he is in good health. Tonight's game marks the 500th of his career as head coach.

"I couldn't care less whether it was my 500th or my fifth," said Paterno, who compared the milestone to the joke about the guy who couldn't count. "They asked him if he could count and he said, 'Yeah, I can count: [using fingers] one, two, three.' And they said, 'Can you count any higher?' He said, 'Sure, I can count higher: [raising his hand] one, two, three' . . . 400, 500."

Penn State (8-4) issues off the field have dominated this week's headlines, instead of the test that 51/2-point underdog Texas A&M (7-5) will present.

Aside from the news surrounding Paterno, five players did not make the trip for various reasons. Quarterback Anthony Morelli skipped a scheduled news conference on Wednesday only to show up unannounced with the defense a day later. And defensive coordinator Tom Bradley denied reports that he was interviewing for the vacant West Virginia coaching position.

It's just been more commotion in a year that has included arrests of players stemming from fights, one player awaiting trial on sexual-assault charges, and even Paterno's involvement in a traffic dispute.

"We've had some off-the-field problems," Paterno said.

Texas A&M, meanwhile, looks like the picture of stability, though the Aggies are mired in transition after Dennis Franchione stepped down as coach on Nov. 23. Darnell, also the defensive coordinator, was given the interim tag, but former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman was named the new head coach only days later.

Darnell, already a journeyman coach, isn't sure whether he'll be retained, though the notion of never coaching again doesn't bother the 59-year-old.

"I do it all," Darnell said. "I rodeo. I can go to the opera. I can jump out of airplanes. I can ride [horseback] across Alaska. I like Harleys. Life's been really open and exciting for me, and I want to keep it that way."

For Paterno, coaching is almost the only thing he wants to do.

"I don't play golf," Paterno said. "I don't fish. I don't hunt. Now, maybe some of the other things you're talking about, can I still do?"

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.