CARSON, Calif. - Joe Paterno agreed to a three-year contract extension last week before celebrating his 82d birthday Sunday, but the Penn State coach downplayed the significance of the deal yesterday in his first public comments.

"To be frank, I got tired of people asking me how long I'm going to coach," Paterno said. "I said, 'Pick three years, all right, and we'll go from there.' "

The agreement left plenty of wiggle room. An athletic department statement said "the parties might reevaluate their circumstances and alter the arrangement by either shortening or extending its length as necessary."

Paterno and the university resist being cornered. Before the team's practice at the Home Depot Center, as reporters asked him about his longtime support for a playoff system, Paterno cited the Bowl Championship Series contract and said, "By the time we get to it, I won't be in it."

That deal runs through the 2013 season. Asked whether he was saying he will have retired by then, Paterno hesitated.

"Is that when the contract's up?" he asked, drawing laughter. "Let's see . . . I'm not making any commitments."

His health is a crucial issue, and Paterno was not ready to say whether he would be able to return to the sideline for the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game against Southern Cal after spending much of the season coaching from the press box and undergoing hip-replacement surgery last month.

"We'll see," he said. "I had jet lag the first day. I did better yesterday. I'm trying."

Recruiting was cited as a main reason for the announcement of a contract extension.

"I just felt I owed it to some of the kids we were recruiting, and so forth," he said.

Asked how he felt about the issue's being resolved, Paterno said it "really wasn't resolved."

"There was nothing to resolve," he said. "It wasn't, 'I want this, give me this. . . .' It was understood that I didn't need a contract.

"I didn't really feel it was necessary, even now, but I think our president [Graham Spanier], we talked a little bit about recruiting, the stability of the coaching staff, maybe a couple of things that would help them as far as their future was concerned. . . . It's really not a big deal."

Nor is Paterno interested in the sort of arrangement Texas announced last month, designating an eventual successor to Mack Brown, who is only 57.

"I don't particularly like it," Paterno said. "What do they call it now? Waiting coach? Coach-in-waiting. I don't know. I think too many things can happen from year to year. But they must have reasons. Every situation is different. You try not to pass judgment on the way other people do it. I would rather not do it that way.

"I just don't like to put a guy in a position where he feels like he's got to stay, and then who knows how long you're going to go? I really haven't given it much thought, but it just doesn't seem like something I would do."

The Penn State players mostly have relaxed since arriving independently from their homes Saturday and Sunday. They have been housed in a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, exploring the area despite recent rains, and a university spokesman said many had discovered the famously quirky California scene at nearby Venice Beach.

They will move to a more businesslike Century City hotel after practice today and have Christmas Day off before preparations for USC resume in earnest.

Asked about the transfer of backup quarterback Pat Devlin, who is reportedly headed to Delaware, Paterno did not express concern about being without Daryll Clark's backup in the Rose Bowl. Paterno earlier made the decision that Devlin would not travel with the team because he planned to transfer.

"Really, the guy - Paul Cianciolo - I've said all along we had three quarterbacks," Paterno said of the player who will back up Clark next week. "Obviously, I'm disappointed Devlin left, but . . ."

The Nittany Lions will face a Trojans team that has an identical 11-1 record, a squad Paterno said "might be as good as anybody in the country."

The holiday, and what he described as a low-key birthday celebration, soon will be behind.

"You try to forget about it," Paterno said of his birthday. "I don't make a big fuss. My kids all call me. I think somebody put a cupcake in my room."