Penn State received its first blow of the James Franklin-era when it was announced that fan-favorite and wildly successful defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. would not return as a member of the teams’ coaching staff, where he has been a stalwart since 1996. It was a tough pill to swallow, as many fans hoped Franklin would take a page out of Bill O’Brien’s book by announcing Johnson would be kept on at his introductory press conference. To further add to the disappointment, it was later announced that Johnson would be taking his immeasurable talents to Columbus and join Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State.
That information is quite a bit to take in for any Penn State fan. We have known for quite some time that Johnson is likely the best defensive line coach in the nation. On top of that, he’s an outstanding recruiter, regularly pulling in talent who at one time or another seemed like a longshot to even consider Penn State. Now not only has he declined to return to his former job, but he’s leaving for a similar position at Ohio State??!?
There are obviously many ways to approach Johnson’s departure. A quick skim of message boards and social media run the gamut from anger and resentment, to appreciation and well wishes. Considering everything Johnson has done for the program since his arrival, he clearly deserves the gratitude and respect of Nittany Nation.
It wasn’t just Penn State fans who noticed Johnson’s enormous talents. Other programs regularly attempted to lure him from State College to move up in the coaching world. But each year, he declined the additional salary and prestige to stay loyal to the players at Penn State. Johnson could have easily worked his way up the ranks to be an FBS head coach by now, and likely a very good one at that. As much as he may have desired to be the man in charge, he stayed for one simple reason- he wanted to keep a promise to all those he brought in to Penn State.
As loyal as Johnson has been, no one could have blamed him for moving on to greener pastures after the hell fires of the 2011 season. But once again he stayed, helping keep the team together throughout a long, drawn-out head coaching search. He stuck around with an unfamiliar staff and continued to build one of the top defensive line units in college football. He stayed even though he would be working under a young and inexperienced defensive coordinator who only possessed a fraction of Johnson’s immense football IQ.
When the new coach disappeared into night after a two-season stint, Johnson once again stuck around to keep the team intact. While many of us were using our time to speculate about a new coach on message boards and social media, Johnson was leading the offseason program so the team could continue to build off the positive momentum that came with a stunning upset victory against Wisconsin to close out the 2013 season.
This time however, there would be no announcement that Johnson would be returning. Instead, we got news that every Penn State fan was dreading.
As hard as it is to take that Johnson will now be wearing scarlet and grey and building a powerhouse defensive line at Ohio State, it’s easy to understand why Johnson felt the time was right for an exit from State College. He stuck around during Penn State’s darkest days, but didn’t want to start over with yet another new staff. If you remove your "fan hat" for a moment and consider his move as a professional, it goes a long way towards understanding Johnson's motives. Instead of entering more uncharted waters, Johnson is joining the staff of one of the top head coaches in college football. I'm in no way a member of the Urban Meyer fan club, but it's foolish to think other coaches wouldn't jump at the chance to work with someone with his track record.
Johnson has a chance to work with someone with multiple national title rings, and could easily have another in the near future. Additionally, he gets to work with a group of young defensive lineman who have the potential to be the best unit in the nation next year. Led by Joey Bosa, who would be a wise choice for preseason B10 defensive player of the year, Ohio State's defensive line is packed with young players who should hear their names called early on draft day one day soon. Johnson has to be salivating just thinking about what he can do with this group under his tutelage. While I'm very happy for Johnson on a personal level, as a Nittany Lions fan I'm terrified of what will happen to our offensive line against Ohio State for the next several seasons.
Simply put, Johnson has done more for Penn State's football program than anyone during the past 10-15 years. Without LJ, we may have missed out on many of the amazing moments we celebrated together this century. While it hurts the program to not have him around, and hurts it even more to have him contributing to a conference foe, it's hard not to be happy for him. His talent and loyalty shone through during good times and bad, and for that we should be forever grateful for the many years we were able to claim Johnson as one of our own.
Thank you for everything, Coach Johnson. I wish you nothing but the best six days of the week. But as much as I respect and admire you, here's hoping for many, many miserable Saturdays.
Check out Galen's counterpoint, later on today.