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James Franklin's Biggest Recruit? Larry Johnson.

He hasn't even officially taken the job yet, but James Franklin has an important first task: retaining Penn State's longtime defensive line coach and recruiting powerhouse.


Most of us would have had absolutely no problem if Dave Joyner had ended his coaching search, decided that his best option was in house, and removed the interim tag from Larry Johnson's job title.

But most of us also recognized that such a move was a statistical longshot, and for all the short-term rally-around-the-flag effects it would have produced, might not have been as prudent a decision as going out and getting a guy with head coaching experience, someone younger, someone more hotly pursued, someone like, oh, I don't know, James Franklin.

Of course, for LJ, what to us seems like the rational move might feel a little more like betrayal, what to us is an exciting opportunity with a fresh new coach is a potential unknown to answer to, an unknown with his own schemes, his own guys, his own strategies. At 61 years old, maybe LJ's ready to hang up the whistle or, worse yet, move on past State College for the first time in his college coaching career, to join a staff where he'll know his role and his employers, and maybe get a nice little raise, too. God knows that if the man wants a new job, he'll be as sought after as any position coach in the country. And the fact that there's an opening in Columbus, with Mike Vrabel joining Bill O'Brien's staff, makes that last option a little more terrifying.

All of this is to say that for the first time in a long time, we have a very real reason to worry, especially in the wake of reports that Larry Johnson himself isn't certain of his own future at Penn State, or whether he will have one this time next week. He wanted the job. He thought there would be a chance he'd get it--though one wonders whether he truly believed that, or if he was just telling himself that to make himself feel better. Although Johnson would've been a fine choice, every indication suggested, from the onset, that Dave Joyner et. al. were looking for an outside candidate, that they'd zeroed in on Al Golden or James Franklin, and that, to be sure, both were attractive options, far more, to an average outsider, than a sexagenarian with no experience above line coach, his recruiting prowess be damned.

And so maybe LJ's ego was bruised, more than anything, when he wasn't given what he felt was a fair shot at the top job, even if we presumed that he'd sought the interview only to save face with recruits, that he understood he'd be the head coach of last-resort, that he would be a modern-day Cincinnatus, leading this program as long as they needed him and stepping aside when the time came and not a day sooner or later. Maybe what we'd taken as an act of loyalty and duty really was a push for something more, and our last chance to keep the legacy LJ's built over the last 18 years going strong.

But maybe, and perhaps just as likely, it's a matter of emotions erupting, emotions prone to be assuaged over the next few days until this whole thing becomes official on Saturday. James Franklin is a smart man and a savvy coach; he's certainly done his homework and understands how crucial Larry Johnson is, not just in having held together a recruiting class over the past nine days with nary a decommit, and not just in continuing to mine the Maryland-Virginia area that Franklin knows so well himself, but in continuing to churn out All-Americans and NFL players as reliably and consistently as any defensive line coach in America. And Larry Johnson does love this university about as much as anyone could; he's stayed at Penn State through coaching changes and despite offers of more money and more responsibility and what could have conceivably been considered a launchpad to bigger and better things than being the defensive line coach at Penn State. He loves his guys, and his guys love him, and although there might not be any more Joe Paternos these days, a few Larry Johnsons is plenty for me. No matter what comes out of this, nobody can ever for a minute question his devotion to the school we all hold dear.

The fact of the matter is this: There are far too many moving parts that need to settle down before we know that Larry Johnson will or won't be here next year, even if hurry-up-and-wait has been the unofficial motto of this coaching search. Vanderbilt could, conceivably, hire Bob Shoop, currently and for the immediate future only the defensive coordinator there, as their replacement to James Franklin--he is a popular choice, not just among media prognosticators but Vanderbilt fans--which would free up the #2 position in Franklin's Penn State administration. Or, Shoop could just as well join his head coach here in Happy Valley. In Columbus, Luke Fickell's future is similarly precarious. Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi could leave for a head coaching position elsewhere. We aren't the only ones who understand how important Larry Johnson is, who fear the recruiting ramifications if he left in the middle of January with weeks before Signing Day. Larry Johnson could either be the subject of a bidding war or, just as easily, do the same thing he's done for the past 18 years: coach the Nittany Lion rushmen, and recruit new ones.

We just don't know. But we can hope that he'll stay, in some capacity; we can know that James Franklin and Dave Joyner are aware of his importance and are doing all they can to keep him; we can pray that they'll succeed. In an offseason of so much upheaval, we could really use the continuity.

Because if Larry Johnson leaves, so will a big part of this Penn State football program.

Please stay, Larry.