It may seem that the only thing Joe Paterno and Pete Carroll have in common was that neither coached in the 1923 Rose Bowl - the last time Penn State and Southern Cal met in the "Granddaddy of Them All."

But if you look closely, there are similarities between the high-profile coaches, who are preparing to face off for the first time in the 95th Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

There are jokes aplenty contrasting the ripened Paterno and his Nittany Lions from the cow farms of State College with the vibrant Carroll and his Trojans from glitzy Los Angeles.

In truth, the 81-year-old Paterno was not patrolling the sideline in Pasadena 86 years ago, despite sardonic reports to the contrary. And the 57-year-old Carroll is not some coaching pup, despite his youthful look.

Both are successful coaches who took different paths to the heights of college football. For Paterno, the Rose Bowl presents a chance for the iconic coach to prove he can still win a big game against one of the newer breed. For Carroll, a win over a legendary figure would add a feather to his cap.

During their teleconference Sunday, Paterno and Carroll were effusive in their praise of each other. Paterno is major college football's all-time winningest coach, with 383 wins, and has claimed two national titles in his 43 seasons as Penn State's coach. Carroll, in just eight seasons at the USC helm, has compiled an 87-15 record and two national crowns.

"There are two or three young coaches out there that really changed the whole game of football," Paterno said. "Pete certainly has been right there at the top of it."

Of course, to Paterno, almost every coach out there is "young." Carroll, in fact, has been coaching for 35 years and has changed location 12 times.

He started as a graduate assistant at Pacific and worked his way up the college ranks and into the NFL. He landed his first head coaching gig with the New York Jets in 1994. He was fired at season's end but was given another go with the New England Patriots in 1997.

Carroll flamed out after three seasons, licked his wounds for a year, and was hired by Southern Cal amid cries that he was ill-suited to run the Trojans. By his second season, though, he had turned the program around. In the 2003 season, he won his first national title. The following year, he had his first undefeated season.

Paterno, mired in the worst period of his career during Carroll's rise, couldn't help but take notice.

"We're all copycats in the coaching business," Paterno said, "when somebody is doing some things as innovative as Pete has done there at Southern Cal."

Paterno has never been hailed as one of the great innovators, but his contributions to the game and longevity are what most impress the whippersnappers.

"He's stood for college football and for football in general as a true icon in every sense of the word," Carroll said. "He's brought a tremendous energy and spirit to football and to the game."

Paterno, who turns 82 on Dec. 21, underwent hip-replacement surgery Nov. 23. After spending the last seven games coaching from the press box, he hopes to return to the sideline by the Rose Bowl in his customary rolled-up khakis and black cleats.

Carroll couldn't help but reference the 1923 Rose Bowl when he marveled at Paterno's durability. Just before that game, Penn State coach Hugo Bezdek and USC coach Gus Henderson almost came to blows after the Lions arrived late and held up the start.

"I don't think you were there," Carroll said to Paterno, "but there was a fight between the coaches in the pregame. I know that you're a little under the weather recovering, but I'm sure you've still got a good left hand."

Paterno, a fan of verbal jousting, responded, "If you've got to worry about my left hand, you're in real trouble."

Coach of the year? Paterno is one of 10 finalists for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year Award for excellence in coaching, on and off the field.

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