Out with the Blue, In with the Scarlet

By Kyle Rowland on February 20, 2014 at 9:15a

For 18 seasons, it was all about blue for Larry Johnson. Penn State’s dominant color shined brightly in the Johnson household. Larry Sr. coached the defensive line for the Nittany Lions, sons Tony and Larry Jr. played football in Happy Valley, and daughter Teresa was a member of the softball team. So cut Johnson some slack for using blue ink pens.

He quickly learned that they’re a forbidden item inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Johnson’s desk is now stocked with black and red utensils. On the job for a month, he’s now settled into his new position, 327 miles west of a lifetime of memories.

“It’s a transition thing,” said Johnson, 61, with a smile. “Life is about making changes. You have to. I’m really excited to be here. I really am. It’s been great for me. I had a great past, but I’m looking for a great future. Being here with the Buckeyes gives me a chance at that.”

The opportunity exists partly because Ohio State is one of college football’s powerhouses and partly due to Johnson’s prowess at signing top-flight recruits and turning three-stars into first-round draft picks. In two short weeks before National Signing Day, Johnson, clad in a scarlet pullover, visited dozens of recruits and flipped defensive end Darius Slade from Michigan State to Ohio State.

Larry Johnson on the Buckeye coaching staff has suddenly turned into a nightmare situation for the rest of the Big Ten, especially his former employer, Penn State. The impact could be felt far and wide during the next two recruiting cycles, which are loaded with talent up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

“I have a ton of blue stuff,” Johnson said. “We’ll have to figure out something. Salvation Army or we’ll give it to the vets or something. There are people who would love to have that gear, so I wouldn’t have a problem getting rid of it if I have to.”

The domino effect that eventually resulted in Johnson being Ohio State’s assistant head coach and defensive line coach is bizarre at best. It actually began some 26 months ago when Urban Meyer was hired to save the Buckeyes at a tumultuous time in the program’s history.

“I made a phone call two years ago when I was hired here,” Meyer recollected. “I called Larry.” 

“I’m really excited to be here. I really am. It’s been great for me. I had a great past, but I’m looking for a great future. Being here with the Buckeyes gives me a chance at that.”– Larry Johnson

At the same, Penn State was at a far lower moment and mired in uncertainty. Johnson wanted to help in the rebuilding process under Bill O’Brien, though, so Meyer retained Mike Vrabel. When Vrabel left to join O’Brien with the Houston Texans, an opening came for Johnson to fill. This time, after being passed over not once but twice for the Nittany Lions’ head job, Johnson went westward.

It wasn’t just Meyer who tried to convince Johnson to bring his talents to Columbus. After years of recruiting blue-chippers, Johnson found himself on the other side of the equation. And of all people, it was a parent of a player Johnson lost out on – Noah Spence – that sold the Ohio State experience. Spence’s father, Greg, maintained a friendly relationship with Johnson and believed Columbus was the right place for him.

At the coaches’ convention in Indianapolis, Meyer, Luke Fickell, Kerry Coombs and Johnson talked throughout a four-hour dinner. At the end of it, the Buckeyes secured a five-star coach.

“I might have changed lots, but I didn’t change cars,” Johnson said. “The product that we sold at Penn State is the same product here – great student-athletes, quality players, quality people. That makes it easy in the transition.”

Said Meyer: “The communication was great. It was a no brainer on our end.”

Particularly when Johnson’s successes are highlighted. His recruiting is a known commodity, while his coaching is often overlooked. Johnson has coached seven All-Americans, 15 first-team all-Big Ten honorees and six first-round draft picks. The achievements and nearly two decades spent in State College made his decision to leave for a rival exceptionally difficult.

But familiar faces like Spence and Tommy Schutt, freshman tour de force Joey Bosa and veterans Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington act as a beacon and bright flash of light at the end of a tunnel connecting Ohio State and Penn State.

“The toughest job for me was saying goodbye to my players. I had not done that in a long time,” Johnson said. “It’s emotional. That’s why I stayed all of those years when I had chances to go. It was just at this time, this junction, maybe it was time to separate. And separate on good terms. I felt like this was a good opportunity to do that at this particular time.”

The extent of Johnson’s coaching at this point consists of watching game tape. But he quickly took a detour back to Pennsylvania and Hershey, saying he felt like a kid in a candy store.

“I’ve got some new toys to play with,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited to impart my wisdom to these guys and see how they do. So far, so good.”


Comments Show All Comments

Alpo's picture

Really excited to see what coach Johnson can do with the surplus of talent we have on the DL. If everyone buys into what he is selling, I think the sky is the limit. Be great to see him more on the recruiting trail as well. I love Mike Vrabel and hope we see him on the OSU sidelines again at some point but we struck gold with is replacement. Can't wait for spring ball!

+4 HS
Buckeye Elite's picture

 I hope it is a long and successful marriage for Johnson and The Ohio State University. GO BUCKS!!! We got a great teacher and recruiter and legend. I can not wait to see the things and improvement that he will bring to the good guys!

"Clear eyes, Full heart, Can't lose!"
                                  - Friday Night Lights

+2 HS
Ahh Saturday's picture

Nice piece on LJ.  I'd love to hear Ross, or someone who's been watching PSU closely, chip in here with some idea of the Xs and Os of what LJ's D-Line will look like.  Will we still be talking about Leo and Viper, or can we expect a new look DL next season?

+1 HS
Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Going to be fun to watch! 

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

PittBuckeye's picture

I can't imagine a change like that after you've been there for so long and are now 61. Good for Larry. Love the quote about the new toys as well.

+2 HS
Hovenaut's picture

I spent some time (undergrad school) in central Pa in the mid to late 90's and quickly noticed the on and off field results Coach Johnson had in State College.

I never for a moment thought he'd ever land in Columbus, but I'm sure glad he's here.

+2 HS
FitzBuck's picture

LJ just give all of the PSU stuff to Vets serving that are fans.  The only team we pull for more than OSU is USA.  

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

+7 HS
Scarlet_Lutefisk's picture

As a veteran the last thing in the world I need or desire is castoff PSU gear. To be honest I find the suggestion somewhat offensive (I also understand that was not the intent). Veterans are not helpless derelicts who need handouts. Send it to Africa with the 2014 Denver Broncos Super Bowl Champions shirts.

-2 HS
OSU86's picture

Our front 4 is already the strength of the team, if they get coached up they will be ridiculous!!!

+2 HS
lvccacamcrca's picture

Welcome Home Coach!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

steveoz49's picture

freshman tour de force Joey Bosa ".....I just love that description.  Said perfectly, nicely done!


Welcome coach Johnson, it's nice to have you on our side now.

+2 HS
mtrotb's picture

Plus I'm sure he welcomed the opportunity to coach at a better program.  Let's face it, State Penn is a good team, but always looking up at us.


kwaz50's picture

Hopefully he can get the most out of Spence and Schutt.  Both have been good players but have the opportunity to be great here, can't wait for the bullets to be back!!

BuckeyeJ's picture

I'm thinking Slade will be one of those guys that people look at and say "he was a 3*"!!

i also love the way Urban wanted him when he first was hired! He IMO was a gold medal get 

+1 HS
zacisone's picture

I was always envious that Penn State had Johnson. Great coach! Go Bucks!


buckeye4life050233's picture

the one thing I like in LJ's videos all around the internet is his technique to coach his dline to bat down passes when they know they aren't going to get to the qb.  We have not been the best in this department over the years and it always seems to happen to Braxton so it will be nice to get some batted down passes.  As well he teaches his dline to be agile by using linebacker drills, should be an interesting year especially with the 12-15 guys that realistically could see playing time on the dline.  Hopefully we rotate at least 10-12 guys

+2 HS
teddyballgame's picture

Good point...it unfortunately made me remember how many passes Clemson batted down last month

buckguyfan1's picture

He just feels right!  Great addition.

Boxley's picture

I would love to see Coach Johnson holding a football Natty Trophy, while coaching at tOSU!

Probably something that was on his mind too, when he decided to come our way. I too thought it was interesting the UFM contacted him when he got the job here to see if he woud come to tOSU with him. I am sure that helped bring him over when BOB bailed after two years.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

We need to get some pics of Larry in some OSU garb!  Too much PSU stuff on 11W will start to draw flies!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

+2 HS
MN Buckeye's picture

I am most looking forward to his recruiting and his keeping the D-line fresh on the field. He seems like the perfect guy to have dinner with and talk about life and football.

+1 HS
RedsBuckeyeBoy's picture

I often have to research the background of a new coaching hire, but with Larry Johnson Sr, it wasn't required. I'm excited to see what he can do now that he's joined the good guys. 

buckeyejma's picture

Really be great to see the silver bullets rejuvenated covering the secondary coach Ash style  and the frontline kicking butt and dropping the offense with a thud!, courtesy of coach Johnson.  My motor is already running for spring practice!  O-H. 

Step aside Nick, Urban is the real rock star!

dcviper's picture

we’ll give it to the vets or something. 

I don't want that shit, and I doubt any other Ohio vet wants it either! 

+2 HS