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Ultra-successful as defensive line coach, Larry Johnson prepares for head coaching debut

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Larry Johnson, shown at a practice in 2018, in in his seventh season at Ohio State after 18 seasons at Penn State.

This is undoubtedly not the way Larry Johnson wanted to become a head coach.

But if the Ohio State football team is able to mitigate COVID-19 and play Saturday at Michigan State, the Buckeyes’ defensive line coach and associate head coach will fill in for Ryan Day. Ohio State’s coach tested positive for the coronavirus and by Big Ten protocols isn’t permitted to be on the sideline.

For Johnson, it’ll be the first time in his 25-year college career that he will serve as head coach.

More: Even without clear superstar, Ohio State's defensive line showing dominance

"Larry’s years of experience working with our student-athletes is phenomenal," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "He understands our culture and what we're all about.

"This is a time when you really have to have the ability to truly relate to the student-athlete and the group. We're at a time when they're under tremendous stress. It's a very fragile situation with them. He's the perfect fit for where we are right now."

Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hired Johnson in January 2014. Johnson had been at Penn State for 18 years as defensive line coach after a successful decade as a high school head coach. In State College, he recruited and developed several top NFL draft picks, including No. 1 overall pick Courtney Brown.

Johnson applied for the top job at Penn State after Bill O’Brien left for the Houston Texans but didn’t get it and decided to leave.

“It wasn’t a bitter thing,” Johnson said several years ago. “I just felt with a new staff coming in again, I didn’t want to be the holdover guy again to go through a transition. I thought about it and prayed about it and thought the best thing was to step away.”

His plan was to relax for a year or two and then decide whether to return coaching. His hiatus lasted only a couple of weeks. As Florida coach, Meyer had crossed paths on the recruiting trail with Johnson and been impressed with him.

When Meyer took the Ohio State job in late 2011, he considered trying to lure Johnson before retaining Mike Vrabel and shifting him to defensive line coach. Vrabel took an NFL job after the 2013 season on his path toward becoming Tennessee Titans head coach.

“When Mike left, (Johnson) was one of the first calls I made,” Meyer said. “We met, and I was blown away. Larry's the real deal. Larry's a great coach and a great friend.”

Johnson’s style couldn’t be much different from the blunt and gruff Vrabel’s. Johnson doesn’t swear. His “curse” word is Santa Claus. When players hear that, they know he’s angry.

“He's one of the few coaches I know that doesn't in intense moments, whether on purpose or accidentally, let something slip out,” Meyer said. “I've never heard him (use profanity).”

Johnson’s G-rated language comes from his playing days. One of his coaches was Herman Boone of “Remember the Titans” fame.

“He was a guy who swore a lot,” Johnson said. “I went to college and had the same kind of coach. I always said that if I coached, that would be the first thing I would not do. I’ve kept that style all my years of coaching.

“I think I can mold the kids to play hard and do what they need to do by treating them as young men. That was my goal. I wanted them to feel that I wasn’t a threat to them, that I wanted to motivate them. And that’s been my style. Right or wrong, that’s what I’m used to and the players at Ohio State adjusted very well.”

If anything, Johnson at Ohio State has exceeded his success at Penn State. Joey and Nick Bosa and Chase Young developed into top-three overall NFL draft picks. Johnson molded less-heralded recruits into NFL players, including Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, Sam Hubbard, Dre’Mont Jones and DaVon Hamilton.

“Sam Hubbard who was a 215-pound safety that I recruited from a dodgeball court,” Meyer said. “He becomes an NFL draft pick. We got Tyquan Lewis, who was really not recruited at all, and he came to our camp and we took him and turned out to be an incredible player and leader.”

Coaching is an evaluation-friendly profession, Meyer said. For a head coach, success is measured by wins and losses. For a position coach, it’s by recruiting and development.

“I can't think in the history of college football there's been a better position coach as far as recruiting and developing players,” Meyer said of Johnson. “It's unprecedented. I think Kerry Coombs (as cornerbacks coach) would be another one where it's just first-rounder, first-rounder, first-rounder.”

Johnson’s success is based on forming deep relationships with his players. Meyer said he was struck by how consistent Johnson’s recruiting pitch was when they would visit with prospects and their families.

“Whether it was Nick Bosa's home or whether it was Tyreke Smith's,” Meyer said, ‘it was, “I, and we, are going to invest in your son. That means we're going to pour all into it. Not just football, but academics, leadership, the brotherhood.’ ”

If Ohio State is able to play Saturday, Johnson will be the first Black head coach in Buckeyes history.

"I didn't think about that until someone mentioned that to me," Smith said. "If there's anyone that's deserving, it's him. I'm happy for him and proud he has that opportunity. I'm sure he won't even think about that, but that's a great honor.

Meyer said Johnson helped educate him about racial matters. Johnson was born in the early 1950s in rural Williamston, North Carolina. Discrimination was a harsh fact of life.

“He did not let that hold him back,” Meyer said. “It just motivated him to do more.”

When Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem several years ago, Meyer said Johnson and Holmes explained to him the issues Kaepernick was protesting.

“In team sports, you don't look at people and what color their skin is, so I never really knew much of it,” Meyer said. “When we had some team meetings, I had Larry come with me because I've never really experienced all that and I wanted to learn and listen.

“Jalyn Holmes and Larry Johnson were so helpful. One of the skills of a leader is to listen, and Larry was very involved in helping our team through that situation.”

Meyer is confident Johnson can handle head coaching duties on Saturday. He’ll have Coombs running the defense and Kevin Wilson the offense. His biggest job will be making game-day decisions – whether to go for it on fourth down, clock management, etc.

Being a head coach can be lonely, but Johnson wouldn’t be alone on Saturday. The Buckeyes will rally around him, Meyer said.

“Oh, he'll be great," Meyer said. "They all love him. Offensive players, defensive players -- they all love him.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Ohio State at Michigan State

When: noon Saturday

TV: ABC (Channel 6)

Radio: WBNS FM/AM (97.1/1460)