The soundest professional advice he ever received, Joe Paterno was saying today, came from the Penn State coach he replaced 15 years ago.

"Rip (Engle) used to say to me: 'Remember one thing Joe. It isn't where you are in this business when you're 40 that matters. It's where you want to be when you want to get out of it. That's what's important. When you want to retire from coaching, that's where you've got to project yourself.'"

There were several head coaching offers most ambitious assistants would have fought to grab. Paterno turned them down, staying here as an anonymous aide for 16 years before being given the job he knew he always wanted in 1966.

At nearly 54, having taken a respected, though limited program to a foot from the national championship, Paterno is viewed by much of semi-amateur football is nearing retirement.

Two years at the most, the whispers go. Earlier this year, Paterno became athletic director, which is what most legendary coaches do when they get bored watching film 10 hours a day and recruiting the other 14. But Paterno, the day before his 12th-ranked team plays third-ranked Nebraska here, hardly sounded like a man looking forward to balanced budgets instead of balanced lines. And to appreciate what he is about to say, you must understand what he endured a year ago.

"I like my squad," he said. "I don't know how good it's going to be, but I like it. I like it because they're hard workers, with real good morale, with lots of enthusiasm, really good kids to be around. I've had a lot of fun with them. I'm anxious to see them get better. I'm anxious to go to practice, to work with them. It's that kind of a situation." a

It was not that way last year. Paterno had spent a dozen years honing the image of a school that actually placed academics on a par with football victories. He insisted a school could be athletically excellent without using Hessian illiterates -- and went about proving it. He seemed overly pious at times -- and whenever someone in the program acted mortal, critics were publicly delighted.

Last year, Penn State had more than cracks. Ravines would be the more apt description.

"I never knew what was going to happen," Paterno said. "Sometimes the phone would ring at night and I'd say: 'Here we go.' Then they (the players) obviously felt that I didn't want to be around them. We really had almost an adversary role. It was a credit to some of the players, to some of the leadership on the team, that we did as well as we did (8-4). And the staff. The staff stayed in there with 'em.

"But for a while there, I'd had it with 'em. Which isn't right. I think I was hurt. I kept thinking of all those Penn State kids that had really done it the right way. And a couple kids . . ." his voice trailed off, then he said: "And it wasn't bad stuff. It kept getting blown out of proportion. hStupid, silly things. And the papers really went after me. It just affected me in a way it shouldn't have.

"But that's all over.

"It's a positive approach now."

The calender nearby pretended today was Friday. Paterno said it was Thursday. Or at least Thursday so far as preparations for Saturday's collision with Nebraska were concerned. The adventure getting to and from Texas A&M last week had been inordinately long and Paterno gave the players Monday off.

"We treated Monday as Sunday," he said. And so on.

Although Paterno has the power, he has delegated much of the business of being athletic director. And now that he also has the responsibility for 30 sports other than his own, Paterno, the football coach, had bent to the demands of Paterno, the athletic director.

"We've canceled two fights this season," he said, "because the money we'll save (by bus) will keep our bowling team going. Yes, two (football) flights equals the (yearly) budget of bowling."

Although he could have his pick of almost any job in the country, presumably including Notre Dame, Paterno said he has no plans to leave Penn State. And having been here 31 years, he hardly is the restless sort.

"My only concern always," he said, "is a Penn State football team under my principles. One or two little things bothered me last year. One person who has been a real fine Penn State football fan for years got up one time in a meeting and said to me: 'Why would we let a guy like (all-America defensive back) Pete Harris become ineligible?'

"That really bothered me. I wondered just how committed everybody is to the kind of program I want to have. If it ever came to be that the pressure to win were such that we had to do some things the way I would not want to do them, then I'd have to think about it (leaving).

"But I don't envision that."