Larry Johnson's Transition from Blue and White to Scarlet and Gray Going Smoothly
By Rob Ogden
Larry Johnson knows coaching. It's the little stuff – like no blue pens in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center – that's taking some getting used to.
Photo by Jim Davidson
The former Penn State coach of 18 years is still adjusting to his new role with Ohio State – Urban Meyer's defensive line coach.
It's been a quick turn of events. Johnson was on the road recruiting for Ohio State the same day he was hired last month.
The fact that he was recruiting for one of the Nittany Lions' main rivals made the transition even more difficult for the man who has known only Penn State football since 1996.
Both of Johnson's sons, Larry Jr. and Tony, played football at Penn State. His daughter, Teresa, played softball for the Nittany Lions. Yet there he was on signing day, sitting inside the Buckeyes' practice facility, wearing a scarlet polo embroidered with a silver helmet.
“I'm really excited to be here. I really am," Johnson said, almost as if he was trying to convince the media members that he wasn't an informant. "It's been a great two weeks for me. It's a change, and sometimes a change is good. I had a great past, but I'm looking for a great future, and being here with the Buckeyes gives me a chance at that.”
Meyer introduced the new coach, but Johnson's resume speaks for itself.
He's had six defensive linemen selected in the first round of the NFL draft, including No. 1 overall pick Courtney Brown in 2000.
Johnson coached seven All-American defensive linemen at Penn State and 15 first-team all-Big Ten selections.
In the midst of a second coaching change in two years, Johnson came to Ohio State looking for a new challenge. Perhaps the biggest one he'll encounter is what to do with all the blue clothes he's amassed over the past 18 years.
“I have a ton of blue stuff. We'll have to figure out something," he said. "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.”
Johnson could have started the process two years ago, but Meyer decided to go in a different direction.
After the firing of longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno and the hiring of Meyer at Ohio State, Meyer discussed a position on his staff with Johnson.
"Made a phone call two years ago when I was hired here in December whatever year that was, I called Larry," Meyer said. "We discussed Ohio State. But then I made the decision to hire Mike Vrabel. We just didn't have a spot."
When a pair of coaches departed for the Houston Texans last month, talks between Meyer and Johnson resumed.
Former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien took the head coaching position in Houston, and Vrabel left Ohio State to become O'Brien's defensive line coach. That opened the door for Johnson.
Ohio State junior defensive lineman and Pennsylvania native Noah Spence was recruited heavily by Johnson as a high schooler. Spence's family maintained a relationship with Johnson even after Spence chose Ohio State.
So after Vrabel's departure, Spence's father, Greg, called Meyer to inform him of Johnson's interest in the position.
"The communication was great," Meyer said. "(Johnson and I) went and met in Indianapolis at the convention and it was a no brainer on our end."
Meyer was joined by assistants Luke Fickell and Kerry Coombs, and the four conversed in a restaurant for more than three hours.
The decision to leave Penn State wasn't as easy for Johnson, but he said it was one he knew he had to make.
"The toughest job for me was saying goodbye to my players," Johnson said. "I had not done that in a long time, and to do that it's kind of 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 a good term. I felt like this was a good opportunity to do that at this particular time.”
But saying goodbye is easier when you can say hello to a defensive line that will return all four starters from a year ago, including Spence, Michael Bennett, and rising star Joey Bosa.
In addition, coming to Ohio State has given Johnson to reconnect with players he previously recruited, such as Tommy Schutt, a one-time Penn State commit.
“Just watching from afar and watching on some video tape, it's a very talented young group," Johnson said. "I can't wait to get my hands them. For two days I had a chance to watch them work out and I'm like a kid in a candy store. I got some new toys to play with and I'm really excited to impart my wisdom to these guys and see how they do. So far so good.”
Johnson has already left his mark on the program through his recruitment of Darius Slade. Slade was the final recruit to pledge to the Buckeyes on signing day, and it was all Johnson's doing. So much so that Meyer knew very little about Slade, and directed all questions about him to Johnson.
Like new defensive coordinator Chris Ash, Johnson said he came to Ohio State because he wants to win a national championship. And he wants it bad enough to leave 18 years of success at Penn State.
“It's a transition thing. Life is about making changes. You have to," he said. "I just thought that here's a great opportunity, as much as this is going to hurt me to do this, but I have to do this for myself. Once I made that decision, I have never looked back.
Change number one is easy: swapping out all those blue pens for red ones.
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