Until their teams collide for the national championship Monday, Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno are content to bask in the rich symbolism of this Sugar Bowl.

It was against Bryant's '59 Alabama team, in the Liberty Bowl, that Penn State gained a tiny measure of attention beyond the East. Against Bryant's '78 team, State can win its first national title. And if Bryant ever decides to create a large void in American sporting legends by retiring, Paterno will hustle forward to fill it.

The two men have taken entirely opposite paths to their present position in semiamateur football, Bryant from the dirt-road truck patches of Arkansas and Paterno from middle-class Brooklyn. Paterno had a wait, a la Vince Lombardi, before realizing dreams he and Penn State once dared not consider. By the time Paterno became State's coach, in 1966, Bryant had more than 170 victories.

"Football has never been just a game to me," Bryant said in his memoirs. "Never. I knew it from the time it got me out of Moro Bottom, Ark. -- and that's one of the things that motivated me, that fear of going back to plowing and driving those mules and chopping cotton for 50 cents a day."

The young Bryant had a competitive fire as fierce as anyone ever in sport. Yes, he admitted, he drove players beyond limits. Yes, some players were given illegal aid, "a couple of boys at Kentucky... and at (Texas) A & M, there were four of five, and I believe most of the time you could tell who was getting something by the way they played.

"The game just didn't mean as much to them."

It meant enough to Bryant that he inspired 39 former players and assistants to stay in the game and become head coaches, Jerry Claiborne at Maryland, Bum Phillips with the Houston Oilers, Jack Pardee with the Redskins.

The rascal phase of his career adds to the Bryant charm now, the wonder of what caused all those cracks and wrinkles in his face and the urge to grab some sort of truth serum and find out.

At a late afternoon press conference today, Bryant said "the segregation problem" was the major reason Alabama did not play more intersectional games until recently, as though he had nothing to do with the mood that created the "problem."

Each coach has his special myth. Alabama fans continually portray Bryant walking on water; State fans tend to believe Paterno is the only coach able to read anything beyond a playbook. Both coaches reveal enough of themselves in mass interviews that their wide appeal is easily understood.

At age 65, Bryant can be a sly fellow, saying of all the attention given himself and Paterno: "Last year Woody (Hayes) and me got it all, just because we were old. There was more written about him and me than both the teams.

"I told my team, 'I can't tell these idiots what to write.' But I've never in my life seen a coach win a game. I've never seen a coach catch a pass or get the key block or score a touchdown. Players win games. But coaches can lose games. I've lost plenty of games, times when we'd been better off I'd have stayed home."

This being Paterno's first chance to win the national championship on the field although he may well have had better teams in '69 and '73, he deferred to Bryant when somebody wondered about preparation for this sort of experience.

"I'd go to General (Robert) Neyland (of Tennessee) and Coach (Frank) Thomas (of Alabama) and ask them," said Bryant, who has claimed four national titles at Alabama, "and they'd say: 'Damned if I know.'"

Which was exactly what Bryant said when asked how his team could be ranked ahead of a Southern Cal team that beat Alabama by 10 points in Birmingham the third game of the season: Naturally, he had an inequity of his own.

"In '66," he said, "the polls had us ranked first in preseason. We won all our games and beat Nebraska big in the bowl -- and we ended up No. 3."

It has only been in the last year or so that State has received the nationwide attention Alabama has known for decades. As recently as 1969, a former Penn State public relations man, Ernie Accorsi, recalled advancing the game against Kansas State in Manhattan.

This was nine months after State had gone unbeaten and nipped Kansas in a memorable Orange Bowl. As he was leaving the interview, Accorsi related, the reporter said: "Hope you guys do well again in the Ivy League."

In 13 years, Paterno has honed exactly the image that works exquisitely with the one vital person in recruiting -- the mother. Most mothers have more influence with their running and tackling sons than even intense fans realize.

With Paterno and his easy and scholarly manner, mothers are convinced their large sons will be cared for in as humane an atmosphere as possible -- and also driven to classroom excellence by the coach who quotes Yeats instead of Lombardi.

Those are not poetry sessions in pads Paterno runs daily. His practices are as intense, in their fashion, as the more publicized ones Bryant conducts from his imperial tower. Paterno once precipitated an asthmatic attack by demanding too much from a Rockville, Md., offensive lineman, Paul Gabel.

"I'm a driver," he said of that incident, in perhaps his most unguarded public moment.

Today, Paterno was showing proper deference to Bryant. At one point, though, Bryant, who admits a major reason for not retiring is public adulation, tried to run a trap play when he said of Paterno: "He's the leading coach in America today."

Laughing, Paterno fought off the block by responding: "I won't argue with him."