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.”