Rob Oller | Buckeyes' Johnson tagged with interim mandate: Don't mess things up

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Larry Johnson holds the reins on the college football equivalent of a team of Clydesdales. The Ohio State interim coach simply needs to let the powerful horses pull him along and everything should be fine on Saturday against Michigan State. 

Is there a chance the Spartans go 2018 Purdue on the Buckeyes? Of course. Underdogs have triumphed even before the shocking upset that is 2020. But if COVID-19 couldn’t keep Ohio State down then Sparty likely won’t, either, which means OSU fans should be able to relax and enjoy the show.

Johnson doesn't have that same luxury. He won’t exhale until the “W” is in the books, based on the odd chance things go terribly wrong. Maybe the virus that forced last week's cancellation at Illinois has thinned the Buckeyes at key positions. Maybe having played only one game since Nov. 7 means the potent offense will be rusty and the pothole secondary will continue to crumble.

Ohio State assistant coach Larry Johnson, here leading his defensive line unit onto the field before the 2018 Big Ten championship game, will be a new voice delivering the same message this week as he steps in for head coach Ryan Day, who is quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.

More likely, the center holds and Johnson gets the win in his first game as a college head coach, having stepped in for COVID-quarantining Ryan Day. But to insist that a fill-in faces no additional pressure is ridiculous.

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If Ohio State were to lose with Johnson running the show, the world of scarlet and gray would explode into a million fragments of accusatory shrapnel, wounding everyone from Johnson to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren to former Ohio State coach John Cooper, who still gets blamed for pretty much everything. Undoubtedly, too, a new MSU villain would emerge to join Levi Jackson, Plaxico Burress and Michael Geiger. 

Johnson’s challenge is to not let that happen, which is where a former interim like Day can help. Before he was an enormously successful 41-year-old OSU head coach with an enviable hairline, Day was a quarterbacks coach who stepped into Urban Meyer’s shoes for three games in 2018.

With Meyer suspended by the university for mishandling allegations of job misconduct and domestic abuse against receivers coach Zach Smith, Day led the Buckeyes to wins against Oregon State, Rutgers and Texas Christian.

Who better for Johnson to turn to for advice than his boss, the man behind the mask? Day certainly counseled the Ohio State defensive line coach this week on the do’s and don’ts of fill-in coaching. But since there is wisdom in multiple counselors, Johnson may want to listen to another voice.

Larry Johnson, here shouting instructions in a 2018 game against Nebraska, will serve as a head coach for the first time since he coached high school in Virginia in 1993.

Head coaching was old hat to Rick Minter when the former chief honcho at Cincinnati (1994-2003) stepped in for one game as Marshall prepared to play Ohio University in the 2009 Little Caesars Bowl.

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When Thundering Herd coach Mark Snyder resigned under pressure a month before the bowl game, the school turned to MU’s defensive coordinator, who viewed his interim status as an audition.

“Initially, I thought I could use the opportunity as an interview on the run,” Minter said this week. “I set out to work the team a little into my image, but also continue what Mark had done. I ran the defense but went over to the offense and suggested a couple of things. We prepared for about 2½ weeks and I positioned myself to be considered for the job.”

Unfortunately for Minter, the Herd hired John “Doc” Holliday about two weeks before the bowl, so even though Minter coached Marshall to a 21-17 win against the Bobcats, he knew his goose was cooked.

“I came home at 1 a.m., put the trophy on the AD’s desk and walked out,” Minter said. “At that point my fate was in Doc Holliday’s hands, and I knew when I pursued the job he wouldn’t retain me.”

Minter, who figures he has about two more weeks working as an offensive analyst at Southern Mississippi — the Golden Eagles just hired a new coach who will want his own staff — emphasized that every interim coaching situation is different. For instance, Johnson only needs to keep a steady hand on the wheel for a week or two until Day returns.

Larry Johnson welcomes defensive end Jonathon Cooper to the sideline after the defensive end recovered a fumble in a 2017 game against Indiana.

“If they think Ryan’s illness will be prolonged, then Larry’s leadership becomes more critical,” Minter said. “But if it’s only a week or two Larry will steer the ship and they won’t miss a beat. Where they may miss Ryan is on game day because he calls all the plays, but they have Kevin (Wilson) up in the box and he’s been there, done that.”

Minter explained the key to transitioning players through a one-game interim situation is getting them to realize it’s “their game” and that they don’t get a second chance to play it. So don’t lose focus just because they suddenly have a substitute teacher.

“But Larry won’t have an issue with that,” Minter said. “The players will hear a different voice, but at Ohio State it’s always 'one sound, one voice.' Everybody speaks the same language, so all the terms and motivational ploys will be similar. There won’t be any major overhauls.”

Probably no major upset, either.