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Larry Johnson will become Ohio State football’s first Black head coach and that’s a big deal

Though even on an interim basis, this carries an important message in 2020.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By now, you have almost certainly heard that Ohio State head football coach Ryan Day has tested positive for the coronavirus and will be quarantined at least through Dec. 7, meaning that he will not be on the sidelines for his team’s games against either Illinois tomorrow or against Michigan State on Dec. 5.

With the announcement that Day would have to miss time, the Ohio State athletic department confirmed that associate head coach and defensive line coach Larry Johnson will serve as the team’s interim coach in Day’s stead.

While we were all wrapping our collective heads around what this means for the program, and what it could foretell for what players might be out of action because of positive tests, Eleven Warriors’ Colin Hass-Hill pointed out an important sidebar to the COVID story.

Johnson is the father of two former football players, NFL All-Pro running back Larry Johnson Jr. and former Penn State wide receiver Tony Johnson. The elder Johnson began his college coaching career as a member of Joe Paterno’s staff in 1996 and remained in State College through Bill O’Brien’s brief tenure before departing for Columbus. Current PSU coach James Franklin offered Johnson the opportunity to remain on staff in Happy Valley, but after having been passed over for the head job multiple times, Johnson was ready to move on. He joined Urban Meyer’s staff in Columbus in 2014, and has continued to be one of the best defensive line coaches and recruiters in college football.

While Johnson will be the third interim coach in the past 10 seasons for Ohio State — joining current Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell and Day himself — we don’t yet know if the record that he amasses while stepping in for his boss will be credited to him or not. When Day took over for Meyer during the latter’s three-game suspension to start the 2018 season, the wins against Oregon State, Rutgers, and TCU were assigned to Day’s career totals, but this is a substantively different situation.

Meyer was not allowed to interact with his team at all during his suspension, but — health allowing — Day will be able to work with his staff and players remotely during his minimum 10-day quarantine. He can’t physically be at practice or on the sideline, but he can do almost everything else; work on game plans, virtually sit in on meetings, talk to players and coaches one-on-one, and more.

Of course, I don’t know that whether or not Johnson gets credit for any wins that he oversees is all that important in the grand scheme of the season or even his career, but for at least symbolic reasons, I think that his selection to run the team during this specifically uncertain time has immense value.

Two weeks ago when I wrote about who should replace Day if he had to miss time this season, I said that Johnson was my sentimental choice because after everything that he’s been through in his career, his prowess both in teaching and recruiting, and his head-down, grinder persona, he just deserves it. But the fact that he would be breaking a 130-year-old glass ceiling is not only historic, but it is absolutely worth celebrating — especially in 2020.

We all know that in addition to the COVID concerns that are currently wreaking havoc on the program, the other pandemic that our country has had to address head-on this year is the generations of overt and systemic racism that infects and infiltrates every aspect of our lives.

There have been football coaches who have handled the discussions around race well (Day and even Jim Harbaugh) and there have been those who have bungled it as badly as they have their responses to other important topics, like player compensation and the coronavirus (looking at you Dabo Swinney and Mike Gundy).

So, to have Johnson become OSU’s first Black coach during this tumultuous season, even temporarily, is important. It also serves as a nice complement to Johnathon Cooper being awarded the team’s first-ever Block 0 jersey this fall. The honor is intended to go to a player who exhibits the traits of OSU College Football Hall of Famer Bill Willis: “Toughness, accountability, and fight.”

Not only did Willis — a defensive tackle — win a national title with the Buckeyes in 1942, but he also broke the color barrier in modern professional football in 1946. To have Johnson — Cooper’s position coach — break Ohio State’s head coaching color barrier in the same season is another serendipitous nod to the legacy of Willis.

It is also worth pointing out that — as long as nothing changes — the two games that we expect Day to miss will have Johnson facing off against two other Black head coaches, Illinois’ Lovie Smith and Michigan State’s Mel Tucker.

This shouldn’t have to be noteworthy in 2020, but unfortunately, it is still difficult for BIPOC coaches to work their way up through the highest ranks of pro and college football. But, with Johnson presumably taking over the Buckeye program for two weeks, he becomes the fifth Black head coach currently leading a Big Ten program; and fourth in the B1G East.

Now, I can’t imagine that tonight, on the eve of his first ever collegiate head coaching contest, that Johnson is worrying about how his new responsibilities play into his personal legacy, or how he now fits into the overall history of Ohio State football.

However, I hope that at some point on Saturday afternoon, he finds an opportunity to look at his team, to take in everything happening in Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, and to realize how important that moment is. To realize how much his presence at the top of arguably the most powerful brand in all of college sports means to so many people; how — short-lived though it might be — having a Black man as the public face of Ohio State football carries a ton of weight and sends an unequivocal message about who the program is and what it stands for.

While I wish Day a speedy recovery and look forward to him being back on the sideline so that he can hang 100 on TTUN, I am excited to watch Larry Johnson coach the Buckeyes on Saturday and (hopefully) get his first — long overdue — Gatorade bath as a head coach.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!