Understanding Larry Johnson

A closer look at Larry Johnson, Penn State's interim head coach. What (and who) has shaped him as a coach, and what drives his passionate dedication to the Nittany Lions?

A few years ago I had a rare opportunity to see and interact with Larry Johnson for the better part of a week on the field and in the film room. Aside from this, I was actually coached by him during this period during Penn State's short-lived Football Fantasy Camp. I was no doubt one of the most pitiful subjects he's ever attempted to mold, but nonetheless he showed a great intensity.

During this time I developed an appreciation for the passion his players have for him. Not only do defensive players talk about how he inspires them to achieve, but offensive players have relayed stories over the years of listening in on his pre-game and halftime speeches to his defensive front to get a piece of that inspiration.

What many fans wonder though is where does this ongoing, unwavering dedication for Penn State come from? Particularly for a man who didn't attend PSU and isn't even from Pennsylvania.

Taking A Chance

Johnson relayed that he had a great appreciation for Joe Paterno for "taking a chance on him." Prior to Penn State he had coached solely at the high school level. However his success is Maryland and later Virginia is largely beyond measure. A six-time Coach of the Year in the Washington Metro Area, Johnson coached one of the winningest football programs in Maryland (McDonogh). In fact, in his final eight years there, his teams had a combined 82-10 record, made eight consecutive appearances in the state playoffs, and captured three Division 3A state championships (1983, 1985, 1990). His overall record as head coach in Maryland was 139-36. He then spent two seasons at his alma mater T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va., the program immortalized in the film, Remember the Titans.

According to Johnson, during his interview with Paterno in 1996, the head coach didn't ask him any football or coaching-related questions, he simply "wanted to learn about me as a person." Johnson said he later learned that since he came highly recommended by staffers, Paterno trusted them on his coaching ability and wanted to see if he would personally fit in with the program.

Johnson relayed that Paterno and Penn State's trust in and dedication to him is something he's cherished and is no doubt a significant driving factor in his unwavering dedication to PSU.

A Coaching Boone

In terms of the major guiding force in his coaching style, Johnson points squarely to Herman Boone, the character portrayed by Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans. Johnson played high school football for him. "I played for him in North Carolina," he explained. He went on to tell me how his team won the AAA state title 60-12, "and we were down 12-0 at halftime."

He explained how Boone could inspire and scare players at the same time. The fear was stemmed in disappointing Boone, which is an aspect Johnson seems to have with his own players.

It's clear that Coach Boone was a major influence on Coach Johnson, saying, "I have modeled a lot of my approach after him." When asked if the movie did Boone justice, he quickly responded in a matter-of-fact manner, "No! He was tougher." Johnson talked about how he pushed and demanded perfection, relaying some great stories about Coach Boone, whom he still keeps in touch with today.

The Road Ahead

It's unclear where the coming road leads Larry Johnson and Penn State, for that matter. However, what's abundantly clear is Johnson's passion for the Penn State program, players, fans and community, and the fact that he's dedicated to relaying the loyalty PSU has shown him over the years.


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