Larry Johnson can see the irony.
Fifteen months ago, he felt compelled to refute retirement rumors. Now the assistant head coach is the longest-tenured coach on Ohio State’s staff.
In December 2017, as the inaugural early signing day approached, Johnson heard whispers that he might step away from coaching. They were no doubt spread by programs that were as tired of losing to him on the recruiting trail as on the line of scrimmage.
Former OSU assistant Luke Fickell once referred to him as “The Ghost” when Johnson was at Penn State. Fickell said he'd never crossed paths with Johnson during recruiting but was repeatedly beaten for prospects by him.
“He’s a legend,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said in December.
Retaining Johnson was a priority for Day when he was hired. For Johnson, staying was easy. He’s 67, but his passion for coaching hasn’t ebbed and he was impressed by Day.
“When I decide I want to walk away, I’ll walk away,” Johnson said Friday after Ohio State’s seventh practice of the spring. “But right now I’ve got a great group of kids in my room. I just like kids. You want to be around them as long as you can. Right now, I’m in great health. I feel great and I’m still excited about football.”
That’s why he was angry about the retirement rumors.
“It bothered me a lot because someone was speaking for me,” Johnson said.
This year will present a new challenge for Johnson, and not just because he’s working for a new head coach. For the first time at Ohio State, Johnson won’t be coaching a Bosa. He had Joey when he arrived in 2014 and Nick is now off to the NFL.
The Bosa brothers may have been the foundation of the Buckeyes' defensive lines lately, but Johnson has molded a long list of stars in his career. He looks forward to continuing that. Chase Young is the headliner this year, but Johnson is excited about his unit’s depth and the promise of several young players.
“Change is part of life,” Johnson said. “Change is part of this job. You adjust and you keep going. That’s what I’ve done. Be resilient and change and go coach football. Let’s go coach football and make sure our kids are in a great position to win football games.”
Though he is two generations older than his players, their bond is strong.
“He shows us that he cares about us,” senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper said. “It’s not just about (football) performance for him. It’s about being a man — how to go from young boys to being grown men.
“I think that separates him from other coaches. It’s not just looking for, OK, let me get this guy to the NFL. He wants to make sure when we leave this place, we’re capable young men who know how to take care of families and our kids.”
Johnson believes his success stems from building trust.
“Being a parent yourself, you understand kids, what their needs are, no matter the age,” he said. “I’m one of those guys who really go after trust. I get those kids to trust me. If they can trust you, they’ll run through walls for you.”
Johnson does it in his unique way. For one thing, he doesn’t use profanity.
He once played for Herman Boone of “Remember the Titans” fame, who did. Johnson told himself that if he became a coach, he would stick with G-rated language.
So he has. His substitute word for profanity is “Santa Claus.”
“That’s his bad thing,” Cooper said with a laugh. “That does not mean gifts.”
Johnson is now far removed from the man who arrived five years ago and made weekly trips to Men’s Wearhouse to replace his blue-dominated wardrobe from his Penn State days with red.
Now he is happy to help Ohio State’s new defensive coaches — Greg Mattison, Al Washington, Jeff Hafley and Matt Barnes — acclimate to Ohio State.
“No question about it,” he said. “Just the tradition and culture of what we’re all about, what it means to play and be a coach for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
“That’s a huge responsibility. I ride in every morning and pinch myself every morning that I get to coach at Ohio State University. That’s pretty cool, man.”