HERSHEY - It was billed as "An Evening With Joe," but there was one small problem. Joe Paterno, the man members of the Penn State Alumni Association and Nittany Lion Club had come to see at the Hershey Lodge, was a medical no-show.

"He's still got that thing," Penn State associate athletic director for communications Jeff Nelson said yesterday of the gastrointestinal virus that also prevented the Lions' legendary football coach from appearing at a similar gathering Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

But, like the play that goes on with an understudy when the featured thespian calls in sick, someone had to stand in for the 83-year-old star. Thus the curtain was raised on "An Evening With Tim, Galen, Mike, Ron and Graham," as athletic director Tim Curley, offensive coordinator Galen Hall, wide receivers coach Mike McQueary, linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and wide receiver Graham Zug filled in for JoePa.

During an interview session with the media that preceded the larger gathering of the alums and boosters, the main topics were the uncertain status of the quarterbacking situation and the likely expansion of the Big Ten Conference.

The first question went to Hall and, not surprisingly, it was about who the starting quarterback might be for the Sept. 4 season opener against Youngstown State and, more significant, against defending national champion Alabama the following week in Tuscaloosa. Would it be sophomore Kevin Newsome, the primary backup to Daryll Clark last season? Former walk-on Matt McGloin? True freshman Paul Jones, an early enrollee who arrived in State College in January?

Hall said the starting position might not be filled until August, but his remarks suggested that, at least for the moment, Newsome and McGloin are ahead of Jones and another highly regarded true freshman, Robert Bolden, who won't be on campus until the summer.

"We would like to make a decision as soon as possible, but it's going to be a very tough competition," Hall said. "It might drag on a little bit.

"Both of them [Newsome and McGloin] are probably going to be ready to play the first game. I don't know that the decision will be made until after a week or 10 days of [preseason] practice. Then we'll try to make the most intelligent decision we can. Really, it's a wide-open battle.

"Kevin has a little more escape ability than Matt. I don't know whether Matt is a stronger-armed player, but he throws the ball maybe with a little more consistency right now. Both players have strong points, but both have a lot to work on."

Zug also was reluctant to tip his hand. If he has a preference, he isn't revealing it.

"For us as a receiver group, it can be difficult, because each quarterback throws differently and has different timing," he said. "But working with them every day will get each one of them to where they need to be."

Whoever the quarterback is figures to catch the heat in the crucible that will be Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 11.

Hall has some experience against Alabama. He was the head coach at Florida in 1987 when the Gators took on the favored Crimson Tide in the third week of the season at Birmingham's Legion Field and pulled off the upset.

"Probably the thing I remember most is that it was the first game Emmitt Smith started as a freshman," Hall recalled. "I think he gained 276 yards against them. We had a very good day."

Actually, Smith gained 224 yards on 39 carries and scored two touchdowns, but it can be difficult remembering every detail after 23 years. The more immediate implication is that it surely would be nice if Penn State's standout tailback, Evan Royster, were to somehow channel his inner Emmitt.

Curley was grilled about the Big Ten possibly expanding from 11 teams to 12, 14 or even 16, a matter conference commissioner Jim Delany has said probably won't gain real traction for another 14 to 18 months.

"We just came from the meetings in Chicago. It's a process that we're going through," Curley said of the expansion, perhaps the hottest topic in college football, because it could trigger a seismic change in the alignments of other BCS leagues, most notably the Pac-10.

"It's an exciting time right now in college athletics for a lot of different reasons, and certainly conference expansion is one of those. Expansion has gotten a lot more attention than any of us thought it would." *