Winning Really is the Only Thing

By Kyle Rowland on April 28, 2014 at 8:30a

Winning is paramount in every profession. Coaching, business, writing – it doesn’t matter; everyone wants to be the best.

It’s winning time for Ohio State in 2014, and if the Buckeyes achieve their lofty goals, a deep, gifted defensive line and their tranquil coach will deserve pats on the back. When games are won in the trenches, four returning starters from one of the nation’s top units creates expectations.

It certainly softened Larry Johnson’s landing in Columbus. The 18-year Penn State assistant came to Ohio State to recruit, develop high-level players and, of course, win. After Johnson was passed over a second time for the Nittany Lions’ head-coaching vacancy, a lunch meeting with Urban Meyer put in motion a change in the landscape that’s reverberated across the Midwest.

“I made peace with myself because I knew I’m for the right reasons,” Johnson said. “[Ohio State] is not a rival. It’s a chance to work with a great coach and a chance to win a national championship.”

Win a national championship. It’s talked about in every locker room, from Florida International to Ohio State. The ultimate prize eluded Johnson all those years in Happy Valley. Meyer won two at Florida, and he may have two more if they allowed Utah to play for the title in 2004 and Ohio State in 2012.  

When Johnson described his new work environment, he used the age-old expression about a kid in a candy store. In one direction is Michael Bennett, in another is Joey Bosa. Over there is Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington. It’s like finding chocolate, rainbow sprinkles, peanut butter cups and ice cream in the same aisle. One-stop shopping.  

“I’ve got new toys to play with,” Johnson said.

Buckeye fans want that to be a trend, especially when it comes to the Eastern Seaboard, stretching from New Jersey to Virginia. Johnson was a former high school coach in suburban Washington and took ownership of East Coast recruiting. But he doesn’t only want to be known as someone who lures talent to campus.

In any interaction with Johnson, the inevitable recruiting questions sprout. So he’s quick to point out his knowledge of Xs and Os and a revolving door of All-Americans and draft picks at Penn State.  

“[Recruiting] is my niche, but I think the brand I have is more that I’m a teacher,” Johnson said. “I’m a fundamental developer kind of guy. I want to develop players into outstanding people, outstanding players. That all goes together if we recruit the right fit.”

First, Johnson himself had to come to the realization that he was a fit for Ohio State. There was a brief flirtation when Meyer was hired in 2011. But it wasn’t until three years later – and more than three hours at lunch with Meyer – that Johnson made the intra-conference switch.

“It wasn’t just ‘I’m going to Ohio State.’ I had some options. I wanted the best fit for me,” Johnson said. “That opportunity to win a national championship was important to me. I wanted to go someplace that feels like home.”

Columbus carries the same small-town sensibilities of State College, even with 10 times as many residents. But Meyer has an aura about him that makes assistant coaches – and fans – feel comfortable and confident.

Winning is one reason – and maybe the only reason.

For a century, teams have taken on the personality of their coach. In today’s world of a constant media cycle, fans’ character is beginning to be an extension of their favorite team. With Jim Tressel, all of Ohio seemed to be strait-laced and conservative. Today, there are more brash, self-assured citizens.

Nevermind that the Buckeyes have to replace an offensive line, their leading running back and receiver and correct a porous pass defense. Those details are minor in the eyes of fans. Or they trust in the coaches and players to solve the riddle.

Angst will be kept at a minimum, because Meyer can come to the rescue on 15 days.

He just wants to be the best. 

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