LOS ANGELES - They sat in the same seat, but a month from now Tom Bradley and Steve Sarkisian will be on different stages.

Bradley, Penn State's defensive coordinator, will return to the Lions for his 31st season as an assistant coach. Sarkisian, Southern Cal's offensive coordinator, has accepted the head-coaching job at Washington.

The two coaches, who were on hand for yesterday's Rose Bowl media event at the Downtown Marriott, represent dissimilar career paths for college assistants.

The 52-year-old Bradley is the longtime Penn State employee that has said that he wants a head-coaching job, but at the same time, values loyalty and the stability of staying in one place. The 34-year-old Sarkisian ambitiously climbed the ladder at USC, hit the ceiling and is now moving on.

There are positives and negatives with both paths.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno was recently given a three-year contract extension. If Bradley, the presumed head coach in waiting, still pined about succeeding his 82-year-old boss, that possibility now seems further removed.

"It's never bothered me," Bradley said. "Coach, he's always kind of teasing me, telling me the only time he's got to go is when he hits three digits. . . . I think everybody keeps bringing it up and bringing it up and making it a bigger issue. But it isn't on our staff."

For 43 seasons as head coach, Paterno has done a remarkable job of keeping his assistants. Some have called this loyalty. Others have called it selfish. Only a few assistants, after all, have left Penn State for head coaching jobs. Ron Dickerson and Jim Caldwell, for instance, left in 1993 to fill the Temple and Wake Forest openings.

At USC, by comparison, four assistants during head coach Pete Carroll's eight-year tenure have already been promoted as head coaches. Tim Holt moved on to Idaho in 2004, but has since returned to the Trojans as their defensive coordinator. Ed Orgeron left for Mississippi in 2005. Lane Kiffin, who recently accepted the Tennessee position, graduated to the Oakland Raiders last year. And then there's Sarkisian.

"Pete would love to see every coach move on," Sarkisian said. "To him, that's an accomplishment in his own right. I think he was as much or more excited than I was when this Washington thing happened."

Sarkisian knows both scenarios when it comes to staying or going. As a quarterback at BYU he saw how head coach LaVell Edwards managed to keep his staff intact. Carroll hired Sarkisian as a graduate assistant and kept him on staff for eight years, but both knew it was time to go.

"He battles [with being selfish]," Sarkisian said. "To Pete's credit, he always makes it hard to leave."

Staying or going is neither right nor wrong. It's simply subjective. Still, not many coaches will publicly say they're OK with being an assistant coach for life. Bradley, who got his start as a Penn State graduate assistant, said he was contacted for some openings this past month.

"I've been contacted by a lot of folks, but I've always been reluctant to talk about it because I don't think it's fair," Bradley said.

It has been reported that Paterno's assistants are protected under his three-year deal. Neither Paterno nor Bradley would confirm this. Bradley said that the assistants are still working year to year. Essentially, because the contract has a clause stating that either side can shorten or extend the deal, Paterno is year to year, as well.

A successor has not been named, nor was it discussed with Bradley, he said. Several programs have a succession plan, including Florida State and Texas. Former offensive coordinator Fran Ganter was once named associate head coach, but he left coaching five seasons ago.

In essence, Bradley is second in command.

"Being an assistant coach at Penn State is different than being an assistant coach at any other team in the country," Penn State linebacker Tyrell Sales said. "The things that Coach Paterno asks his coaches to do. Coach Bradley is in charge of the defense. It's his defense. We do the things he wants us to do."

Bradley, now in his ninth season as coordinator, has done a crack job this season, with his unit being ranked No. 5 in the country in total defense. If Paterno just so happens to coach until he's 100 and that meant Bradley was never more than an assistant, that would be just fine with the former Lions walk-on.

"I'd be OK with that because I'm in a great place," Bradley said. "I enjoy what I do. I like the people I work with. I enjoy the way coach Paterno lets us coach. We have a lot of things that he allows us to do. He lets us be ourselves."

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