Larry Johnson roamed the home sideline at Penn State's Beaver Stadium for 18 years, most of them as the coach of the Nittany Lions' defensive line. He'll be back in the massive facility Saturday night, only this time on the opposite sideline.
And leading the defensive line of one of PSU's biggest rivals, Ohio State.
Johnson, who joined Urban Meyer's staff in January after being passed over for the vacant head job at University Park, is not sure what to expect Saturday.
You don't know until you get there, to be honest with you, he said in a conference call with Penn State beat writers Monday. I know a lot of my family is coming in and a lot of my friends are coming in. It's exciting to be able to go back to somewhere you spent 18 years at. But I don't think I'm gonna have that much emotion that I'm gonna show it going into the game.
Johnson was considered one of the nation's best defensive line coaches during his long tenure at Penn State, developing seven first-team All-Americans and six first-round NFL Draft picks. He was also known as a top recruiter, primarily working in the mid-Atlantic region.
When Bill O'Brien left PSU to become head coach of the NFL's Houston Texans last New Years Eve, Johnson was quickly hired as interim head coach of the Lions. He applied for the full-time position -- as he had after Joe Paterno was fired in 2012 and O'Brien landed the job -- but this time was passed over in favor of former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.
Ten months later, he took exception when he was asked if there was any lingering bitterness over the way his Penn State career ended.
I didn't have any bitterness when I left, he replied. It was my decision to leave, it was my time to move on. I felt with Coach Franklin coming in with a new staff I knew he had a D-line guy he really liked a lot. I just felt it was the right thing to do, to step away from it for a while. It was a tough decision to make. But looking back, it was the right decision. No, I have no bitterness at all.
Franklin eventually filled most of his PSU staff with men he worked with at Vanderbilt, including defensive line coach Sean Spencer.
As for Johnson, he said he intended to step away from the game for a while. But he never really got the chance.
I was gonna take a couple months off, relax, even a year, he said. Then an opportunity came before me that I thought was a great opportunity to continue coaching, and I kind of jumped at it. I wasn't looking for it. It just presented itself in the right way and I said, 'Wow, what a great opportunity.' I was out of work about two weeks -- less than that, probably -- and I had a job.
So I'm very grateful to Ohio State University and Coach Meyer, he added.
“I was gonna take a couple months off, relax, even a year. Then an opportunity came before me that I thought was a great opportunity to continue coaching, and I kind of jumped at it.”
The actual timeline was much less than two weeks. Franklin was hired by Penn State Jan. 9. Within four days, reports surfaced of Johnson heading to Ohio State. And he has not looked back, since.
In fact, once his son Tony (and Tony's family) moved from State College to Columbus in the summer, there was not a whole lot at which to look back.
The only thing I have back there is my church family, to be honest with you, Larry Johnson said. So we stay in touch with our pastor back there as often as we can.
Looking forward, Johnson is not sure exactly where his coaching journey is headed. His official titles at Ohio State are defensive line coach and assistant head coach. But that does not necessarily mean he is focused on becoming the head coach somewhere.
I just go one day at a time, he said. I'm not a guy chasing (job) titles. I just want to be happy with what I'm doing and have a chance to make an impact in young people's lives. As long as I can do that, I'm pretty happy. So I'm really happy where I'm at and the place I'm at. That's important to me.
He insists there are no regrets or hard feelings.
I'm at peace with myself and at peace with the decision I made, and really wish Coach Franklin the best as he moves forward and moves the university forward and the football program, Johnson said.
Larry Johnson’s Press Conference at Ohio State.