STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – Joe Paterno’s plans for his 81st birthday today sound about as ordinary as those rolled-up khakis and black sneakers he wears on the sideline.

As Paterno sticks to his late December routine of preparing Penn State for a bowl game, two familiar questions are in the air again in Happy Valley: How much longer will he coach, and who replaces JoePa when he leaves?

“Hopefully, I’m not going to be a crotchety old man, and you know, not handle it,” Paterno said when asked about his future at a news conference last week. “When it’s time to go, go, right? … I just feel so good right now. I hate to put a time frame on when I’m going to get out of here.”

The 42-year head-coaching veteran is about to enter the last year of a four-year contract that expires following the 2008 season.

Paterno, who took over at Penn State in 1966 from Rip Engle following 16 years as Penn State assistant, playfully jabs at reporters when asked about establishing a line of succession, although he has bristled about the topic in the past.

Just talking about life after JoePa can be touchy in Happy Valley. Paterno has some loyal supporters – many of them deep-pocketed donors – who say the coach has earned the right to leave on his own terms.

Administrators are tightlipped.

Paterno doesn’t have an agent, and any formal discussions about an extension likely won’t start until the season ends. Athletic director Tim Curley said this week he planned to meet with Paterno to review the program, as they typically do following each season.

With possibly as many as 18 starters returning next season, the Nittany Lions are stocked with the kind of veteran talent that could help fuel a championship run to send Paterno off on a high note.

Even Paterno acknowledges that his tenure is nearing an end, though he continues to say that he could go for at least another three years or more if his health allows.

When he does leave, Paterno has said he’d like his replacement to come from within. Among the veterans on his staff is defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, a master recruiter and the architect of a perennial top-15 defense, who has been at Paterno’s side for 29 years.

But another recent high-profile coaching hire last spring might be a clue to the school’s way of thinking. Penn State hired Coquese Washington, who had no previous ties to Happy Valley, to replace Rene Portland as women’s basketball coach. Portland resigned in March following 27 seasons.

“I think when I start to get the feel, I’ll sit down with the right people and say, ‘Hey, maybe we ought to start talking about my getting out of here if it benefits us,”‘ Paterno said. “But right now that hasn’t even come up.”

Paterno would rather spend his birthday preparing for the Alamo Bowl. It’s a task he’ll likely accomplish at the sprawling football complex or at his home office, where the coach has spent more time in recent years.

Regardless of where he is, the routine has been nearly identical through the decades. Why change when you’re getting ready to coach your record 34th bowl game and 500th career game overall?

Penn State’s bowl opponent, Texas A&M, has had eight head coaches since Paterno took over the Nittany Lions in 1966.

“It’s pretty amazing when you look back on it, just being able to know that this guy has been around that many games,” center A.Q. Shipley said. “It’s pretty amazing to realize the uniqueness of 500 games.”

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