Bill O’Brien may have been the heart of Penn State football for the last two seasons, a driving force behind a movement that kept the program afloat in the wake of supposedly crippling sanctions. O’Brien will forever be remembered for what he did during his short stay in Happy Valley, but he isn’t the only loss that comes to Penn State this offseason — not when a Penn State legend like Larry Johnson decides to part ways with the Nittany Lions and becomes a Buckeye.
Before accepting the Ohio State Assistant Head Coach position this week, Johnson spent 19 seasons in State College, including the final 15 as the team’s defensive line coach and in many ways the de facto lead recruiter. He landed big name recruits on an annual basis, most recently earning a commit from consensus four-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley (who Penn State also lost along with Johnson). In recent years, Johnson was the primary recruiter on Adam Breneman, Garrett Sickels, Donovan Smith, Kyle Baublitz, Zach Zwinak, Stephon Morris, Jordan Hill, NaVorro Bowman, Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick, among others. In the 2006 class alone, Johnson received commits from nine four-star recruits and one five-star. The connections he made with those players often lasted long after they left Penn State.
“I’m a relationship guy, and I think in order to get the best out of your players, you have to develop relationships,” Johnson said in an Ohio State release. “I’m also a teacher. I like to teach the basic fundamentals of football. I want guys who are fundamentally sound and have the ability to play fast and play relentless.”
While O’Brien was certainly very important to the team, losing Johnson and his recruiting pedigree could potentially hurt even more. Johnson was a dominant recruiting force in the Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia areas, as well as other parts of the East Coast.
One of Johnson’s former linemen and All-American Devon Still spoke to the Columbus Dispatch about the impact “Coach J” has had on his life, and continues to have.
“The only reason I went to Penn State was Coach Johnson and the connection I felt with him,” said Still, originally an Ohio State commit. “One person who made sure he reached out to me every day, came to speak to me, texted with me, asked me to come to his office just to talk — not even about my injury but life — was Coach J.”
Johnson leaves a hole that quite simply can not be filled. He is irreplaceable, both as a coach and a recruiter, and new position coach Sean Spencer will have his hands full trying to replicate Johnson’s impact on the team both on and off the field.
“I can’t put into words how much this experience has meant to me,” Johnson said to the Morning Call. “The opportunity to get the job from coach Paterno and to build so many relationships with the players, I think that I’m most proud of the relationships I’ve developed with players off the field. That’s something I will take with me. Those relationships will be ongoing. We’ll never be out of contact.”
“(Leaving Penn State) was a tough decision and a very tough day for me. But at the end of the day, it was time to step away from Penn State and let the team grow. I’m leaving in peace and in good spirits. Sadly, I’m going to miss my players.”
The reason’s for Johnson’s departure will probably be debated for a long time, but its been speculated that Johnson never received serious consideration from the search committee for the head coaching position. He had widespread support from his players, but lack of coordinator experience and Penn State’s newfound desire to hire out-of-house probably hurt his chances. It was reported that Johnson turned down the defensive line coaching position on Fraklin’s staff, which probably sits uneasy with some fans. We probably won’t ever know what went on behind closed doors, but it’s hard to imagine that Johnson would have turned down a coordinator position at Penn State. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t in the cards.
“My point of view is there are only so many times a man can turn his cheek and allow things to happen,” Still said. “Coach J being at Penn State for 15-plus years, I know a lot of people who went to Penn State and stayed at Penn State after the (Jerry Sandusky) scandal stayed because of Coach J. For him not to get a shot at head coach, I felt like that was a slap in the face.”
Losing Bill O’Brien might have been for the best, both for O’Brien and for the Penn State football program. He gets his dream job by obtaining a head coaching position in the NFL and Penn State replaced him with a college coach who swears he told his wife years ago that the Penn State job is the pinnacle of his profession. Losing Larry Johnson, on the other hand, is going to hurt for quite some time.