Now, Johnson, who spent the past 14 years as defensive line coach for the Nittany Lions, is Columbus bound as the team's defensive line coach after Ohio State confirmed his addition as assistant head coach/defensive line coach Wednesday evening. The hiring was first reported Monday night by SI.com's Pete Thamel.
In the words of one OSU columnist, it has the chance to become the best Pennsylvania import to the Buckeye State since Yuengling.
Not only is Johnson considered one of the best recruiters in the country, he has also produced some of the best defensive lines in the nation during his tenure. And now, after nearly two decades in Happy Valley that included twice interviewing for the head coaching job only to twice fall short, he appears to be Buckeye bound.
"It's kind of a weird scenario, I guess you could say, but I think the vast majority of people wish him well wherever he lands," Scout Penn State publisher Mark Brennan told BuckeyeSports.com. "Here's a guy who was here for a long time, obviously did a great job, developed all these great defensive linemen, put all these guys in the NFL.
"In terms of being surprised, I'm not necessarily surprised that he's leaving, but if he ends up at Ohio State – which it appears he's going to – that would be an ironic twist, I guess you could say. It's kind of a unique situation."
On The Trail
It's especially unique given that the new staff at Penn State, led by former Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin, has quite a reputation as a recruiting powerhouse as well after leading the Commodores to the No. 19 recruiting class in the nation a year ago.
And in his first press conference in Happy Valley on Saturday, Franklin made it clear he hopes to lead Penn State to prominence when it comes to recruiting the Keystone State and the eastern seaboard.
"We are going to dominate the state," Franklin said when it comes to recruiting. "We are going to dominate the region. I've worked a lot of different institutions that tried to compete. Recruiting against Penn State University, it was always an unbelievable challenge because this school has everything that young men are looking for. This school has everything that families are looking for. That is going to be our plan, and I'm calling all the high school coaches. I'm calling all the people in the state that we need to come together like never before."
It is ironic, then, that Johnson leaves Penn State considering his ties to the very area Franklin now wants to target. His recruiting credentials are among the best in the nation, and as Scout recruiting writer Derek Young outlined, his hiring has already excited recruits in both the current class and those upcoming. In many ways, he seems to be a fitting replacement for former DL coach Mike Vrabel, a burgeoning star recruiter in his own right.
Ohio State has also had success in both Pennsylvania and the northeast in recent years. The late Joe Daniels, an assistant coach under Jim Tressel, helped open the door to the Keystone State, allowing the Buckeyes to bring in players like Terrelle Pryor, Jordan Hall, Rory Nicol and more.
The Buckeyes have also been dominant in the Northeast since Meyer came along, snagging four-star players Armani Reeves and Camren Williams out of Massachusetts, adding Noah Spence out of Pennsylvania in 2012 and getting commitments from receivers out of Brooklyn, N.Y. (Curtis Samuel), New Castle, Pa. (Malik Hooker) and Sparta, N.J. (Noah Brown) in this class.
In other words, it is game on, and the Buckeyes will soon be bringing a pretty strong gun to the fight.
"I know Larry Johnson will do a great job. He's a tremendous recruiter," Scout east coast analyst Brian Dohn said. "But at the end of the day, if Urban Meyer wants a guy, he's going to be the one recruiting him. You're just going to need the assistant coach to set things up for Urban, and then he can be the one who does things.
"Hiring Larry gives you a guy who has plenty of relationships in the East, so that will help the beginning part of the process. But as it gets toward the end of the process, if you look at it, who have they missed out on in the East that they really wanted?"
On The Field
On the field, Johnson was known for coaching talent on the defensive line, something that can be measured by the number of awards his linemen were able to capture.
Johnson developed seven first-team All-Americans and six Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year or Defensive Lineman of the Year honorees since 1999 at Penn State. Johnson also coached 15 first-team All-Big Ten performers with the Nittany Lions.
When it comes to the next level, the Nittany Lions were also impressive under Johnson. Six of his pupils were first-round draft picks, a list that includes Courtney Brown, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 draft, as well as Jimmy Kennedy (12th overall, 2003), Michael Haynes (14th overall, 2003), Tamba Hali (20th overall, 2006), Aaron Maybin (11th overall, 2009) and Jared Odrick (28th overall, 2010).
"Anytime you have six NFL first-round draft picks and seven first-team All-Americans, you're doing something right," Brennan said.
What was also impressive to Brennan was how Johnson was able to coach up highly touted players and three-star prospects alike.
"If you go back and look, there were guys who played for him who were very highly recruited who he got the most out of, like Jared Odrick. And there were other guys who maybe weren't the most highly recruited guys and maybe didn't become All-Americans, but they were very productive players – Ollie Ogbu is a guy who comes to mind.
"It wasn't just as if he was recruiting future NFL players and doing a great job. They were bringing in some under-the-radar guys and doing a very good job with them."
Off The Field
Johnson was also well-respected by just about everyone in Happy Valley, it seems, with his now-former players wishing him well in this story on our Penn State site.
Included is a story about how Johnson would often host players at his home on Thanksgiving now that the Big Ten has mandated the regular season end the weekend after the holiday. The fact that he was like a father away from home made Johnson a wildly popular coach among his former players, many of whom were hoping he would have a serious chance at the Penn State head coaching job once Bill O'Brien left this offseason.
"One of the real cool things I thought was when he was named interim coach, a lot of former players took to Twitter supporting him for the head coaching job," Brennan said. "I think there was probably some level of disappointment that their guy didn't get it. By and large I think most people have rallied behind Franklin, the point being that (Johnson) was known as a players' coach, so to speak."
It's that connection that ties together the Johnson hire. His down-to-earth nature has made him a star both as a recruiter and a coach, something Brennan expects to continue as Johnson makes his way to Columbus.
"There probably aren't enough adjectives to say the good things about him," Brennan said. "He was great for the Penn State football team, but he was also great for the university and the community. He was just a strong presence all-around in a lot of ways."