Larry Johnson took a deep breath a month ago and made a decision. At 61, it was late in his coaching career to make such a big move, but he decided to leave Penn State for Ohio State. The job change meant more than switching allegiances. It also brought a radical wardrobe change.
“My wife says I look good in red, so that’s a good start,” Johnson said.
That’s scarlet, to be exact. But when Johnson switched from the blue and white of Penn State to the scarlet and gray of Ohio State when Urban Meyer made him the assistant head coach and defensive line coach, Johnson’s wife, Christine, wasn’t the only one who noticed.
“It was just weird,” Jeff Weachter, the football coach at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pa. “He came in last week on a recruiting visit and he was the same guy, but it was different — Larry always wore a blue tie or a blue shirt. But he came in here wearing a red tie.
“I told him, ‘This is strange.’ But it was all good.”
In car salesman parlance, it’s called “crossing the street.” Johnson sees it as going from one well-known major college football marquee to another. It’s the recruiting ties that matter most, and he has deep equity on the East Coast.
“I might have changed lots, but I didn’t change cars,” Johnson said. “There’s no question it’s different, because 18 years at one place — my staying at Penn State was because I was real loyal to my players. That’s why I stayed all those years. It was just that at this time, this juncture, it was time to separate.”
As he reasoned, “Recruiting is recruiting; you’re just doing it for a different school. The product we sold at Penn State is the same product here: great students and student-athletes, quality players, quality people. That makes it easy to transition, because you’re recruiting the same kind of players.”
When he made up his mind to leave Penn State, Johnson said the toughest part was saying goodbye to his players. But he felt that being the only assistant to survive the two coaching changes in three years in Happy Valley would make him the “elephant in the room” on James Franklin’s new staff, and that it was time to go elsewhere. It was only days later that he and Meyer agreed that Johnson’s new home would be Ohio State.
“It was really about a fit for me, and I felt very comfortable in this fit to be a Buckeye coach,” Johnson said, citing the quality of the school, the returning talent on the defensive line, the breadth of the Buckeyes’ recruiting footprint and the chance to compete for national titles.
With the snap of a finger, the change of a tie and the vow not to be seen wearing blue or even using blue-ink pens — “I learned pretty quickly about that, because that’s the color of the team up north” — Johnson hit the recruiting trail. But that trail was pretty much the same.
For instance, it took him back to McDevitt, where he has been many times before. A couple of years ago, he tried to persuade defensive end Noah Spence to sign with Penn State in the midst of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the Joe Paterno firing, only to see Spence sign with Ohio State. There were no hard feelings between Johnson and the Spence family. Spence’s father, Greg, even urged Johnson to consider the OSU job when defensive line coach Mike Vrabel left for the NFL’s Houston Texans last month.
Now Johnson is knocking on the door at McDevitt, trying to convince blue-chip running back Andre Robinson that OSU is the place for him. Weachter said the welcome mat is always out for Johnson.
“First, he’s a great person, and he is a great coach, a great defensive line coach,” Weachter said. “He also is a great recruiter. He relates well to high-school kids. I haven’t had one kid he tried to recruit who at least didn’t like him.”
That’s not the way it always works, Montclair (N.J.) High School coach John Fiore said.
“It depends on the individual,” Fiore said. “A guy like Larry Johnson, he was a mainstay at Penn State for 15, 20 years and has been a heck of a recruiter in the state of New Jersey. He is well respected by the high-school coaches in this state.”
That brings up the curious case of Ohio State landing Montclair defensive end Darius Slade on signing day almost two weeks ago. As Fiore explained, Johnson wasn’t going to get Slade if he stayed at Penn State, because one of Slade’s cousins, Jared Odrick, had gone there in the mid-2000s and Slade didn’t want to follow in his shadow.
“But Darius wanted to play for Larry Johnson in the worst way,” Fiore said.
Slade, who had first committed to Nebraska and then to Michigan State, stepped back from the Spartans and signed instead with Ohio State because of Johnson.
“Now Darius can have the best of both worlds,” Fiore said. “He can play at a top-notch Big Ten program and vie for the national championship every year, and play for Larry Johnson.”