While ex-Wisconsin co-DC Chris Ash's pending move to Columbus has some excited about his prospects as a teacher (and in general his ability to bring in a fresh, outside vantage), the name that's had Ohio State fans the most excited for the better part of this week is that of Larry Johnson Sr.
Though there's unquestionably a bit of 'fan gamesmanship' to snagging a career assistant at a rival program to better your own, Johnson's universal reputation as a great coach but an even better man means Ohio State's unquestionably gotten better. His speech at this past week's American Football Coaches Association had some ready to "run through a wall" in under 10 minutes, and in the video above, you can see why.
We know Johnson is almost akin to family to PSU faithful, but we wanted to try and get a more up close and personal look at him as an addition to the OSU staff. To do so, we chatted up Black Shoe Diaries' managing editor, Cari Greene.
How surprised are you that Larry Johnson Sr. didn't retire?
I'm not very surprised he didn't retire retire, but more surprised he's not retired from coaching. Frankly, he's come out and stated on more than one occasion how much he loves the Penn State community, and he's bled blue and white for 17 years; I expected him to retire from coaching to serve the State College community or the university in some other way, in the athletic department or other university function. On the other hand, though, it is unsurprising that the call to coaching hasn't left him yet, as he has still had a positive impact on the men he's coached and recruited to this day, as evidenced by the overwhelming public support his current and former players expressed for him when he interviewed for the Penn State head coaching position.
Johnson told the American Football Coaches Association Sunday that he never curses. Could that cause some potential personality conflicts with others on staff who might be more prone to profane outbursts (or say a head coach who isn't afraid to let some slip during the heat of the moment)?
If it didn't cause conflict with Bill O'Brien, a known purveyor of a choice word or two, then that likely won't be an issue in any other coaching staff. Above all else, LJ is an understanding and compassionate man, and I can't see him letting word choice get in the way of building positive relationships with those around him. If anything, I would think that profanity used around LJ would more affect the user or those around them than LJ himself, just due to the reverence that LJ inspires.
Johnson's 247Composite recruiter rankings are a bit underwhelming for the last cycle, all things considered. Is this more a product of the NCAA sanctions than anything else? In what regard did PSU recruitniks hold Johnson?
He was one of a small handful of Joe Paterno's staff that was actively recruiting, and as such, he's held in extremely high regard by Penn Staters who follow recruiting. Part of that may be in comparison to those he was working with, but a lot of that was his legitimate recruiting acumen. For many years, LJ was able to pull in a number of highly touted recruits from the DC Metro area (Derrick Williams to name just one), as he was a high school head coach in Northern Virginia with very strong ties to the region. Outside of the mid-Atlantic, though, he doesn't have as much name recognition, and the comparative lack of talent in more recent years in MD/DC/NoVA may have led to his perceived dropoff. He also was one of the few that could truly sell the program as a whole, having been in Happy Valley for a number of years.
James Franklin himself is heralded for being a strong DC/MD/VA recruiter. Can he and his staff's existing network offset Ohio State's potential gain of Johnson enough to mitigate the loss?
This is basically a big reason why I'm not concerned to lose LJ from a recruiting standpoint. In some ways, the tag team of Franklin and LJ in the region would have been redundant. I don't foresee much dropoff in the area from recent years, and our friends at Testudo Times agree.
There'd been some talk that perhaps Ohio State would sweeten the offer for Johnson by making him co-(or outright) defensive coordinator. Ultimately that went to (ex-Wisconsin's co-DC) Chris Ash instead, but say in a year or two, he was given additional responsibilities of that ilk. Is that something he could be successful at after a career as a position coach?
Your guess is as good as mine. A few years ago, he was offered the DC job at Illinois but turned it down in order to stay in State College on the defensive line. He does have experience as a high school head coach, and that would obviously help somewhat in any transition; but his only experience as a co-coordinator was the final three games of the 2011 season, and those didn't turn out so well. What LJ does that is so great, though, on top of the fundamentals of coaching is truly inspiring his players to succeed both on and off the field. So many players, and fans and fellow coaches, would quite literally lay down their lives for this man, and that can only help in overseeing a larger group of players.
If Johnson was miffed about not getting the head coaching job, is there anything Franklin could have possibly done to keep him on staff? Would that even be a desirable working arrangement, particularly after him having already done the same once?
Honestly, I don't think he even truly wanted the job, and interviewed as somewhat a courtesy; I believe he thought it was an extreme long shot, and stayed to oversee the program on an interim basis because he truly loves Penn State and the players. Similarly, I'm not sure that there was anything that Franklin could have done to keep him on staff. Because Sean Spencer is an able replacement, I'm of the mind that LJ knew that the program would be taken care of, he didn't want to put someone out of a job, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to move on.
I think LJ also recognizes that he partially represents a throwback to the old era of Penn State football, and while for some that's comforting, the constant reminder of the old regime also puts an incredible burden on Franklin and the program as a whole. That's a burden that he watched O'Brien bear for two years, and it's not a stretch to think that LJ wouldn't see a clean break as also somewhat cathartic for the university.
What's the Larry Johnson Sr special sauce? How has he been able to have the kind of impact on Penn State defensive lines that he has?
There's a lot of things that go into it. LJ has been so good at turning two or three star guys into NFL players, and inspiring loyalty on and off the field. That's not really something you can teach. Actual coaching-wise, he's been very good at teaching the fundamentals, and is well known for using typical defensive back drills in his training sessions for the defensive line. He's also a big proponent of rotation, and you'll see guys going in and out with much consistency. For Penn State and the D-line under LJ, it's more about reloading and not rebuilding; and that's mostly because LJ gets young guys into heavy rotation early, and not just in mop up time in early non-conference games.
Finally, what impact do you think this has on the Ohio State/Penn State East division rivalry?
Overall, it's just going to magnify what's already there. There's already resentment on the PSU side, and that's going to build-though most PSU-ers likely won't resent LJ so much as Meyer for poaching him, because the man is still so beloved. If the series continues to be one-sided, though, and LJ doesn't retire soon as many expect he will, that love might erode and flip on itself. Before the news broke, I already saw some calling him a 'TRADER', so that will likely only increase.
On Ohio State's side, it's probably going to be met with some ebullience and a small bit of arrogance, because he turned down Franklin to go over to Meyer. The only way to calm that, though, is to win; and with LJ on the sideline, that task likely just became more difficult for Franklin and company.