'It was special:' Larry Johnson leads Ohio State to win as acting head coach

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Larry Johnson’s suspicions were aroused by Zach Harrison late in the fourth quarter at Michigan State on Saturday afternoon.

Standing on the sideline during the final seconds, he was approached by the sophomore defensive end, who began a conversation that quickly felt like a diversion.   

“I knew something was up,” Johnson said.

But it was too late for Johnson to react. Seconds later, a bucket of Gatorade doused him in celebration for leading Ohio State to its 52-12 triumph. Players around him cheered as they conducted the ritual.

Interim Ohio State coach Larry Johnson watches from the sideline in the fourth quarter of the Buckeyes' win at Michigan State.

“The kids kind of set me up,” he said.

It was deserved recognition for Johnson, who had filled in as the Buckeyes’ acting head coach in the aftermath of Ryan Day’s COVID-19 diagnosis a week earlier.

A veteran defensive line coach, he guided the team through a series of practices and a win over the Spartans despite a roster and coaching staff that were shorthanded, lingering effects from the outbreak of coronavirus cases that led to their previous week’s game at Illinois to be canceled.

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Johnson made history as he led the football team, becoming its first Black head coach in any capacity.

But as he reflected on the significance of the milestone, he saw himself as more of a stand-in than a trailblazer, putting the Buckeyes back on a path toward national championship contention after recent interruptions.

“It's really just coaching one game,” Johnson said. “All I’m doing is standing in the gap.”

He was motivated by fear, dreading the idea of returning the team next week to Day with the Buckeyes having a record of anything other than 5-0.

“I did not want to go back Sunday and stand in front of that team after losing a game,” Johnson said. “That was my focus. Going into it all week long, it was never about me, it was about the team. That's just my mindset and how I feel. A great honor, but more important to just being the first, is action. Everything I do is for the players.”

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He knew this week mattered for them, too, after they missed a chance to play last weekend and faced some uncertainty in previous days over the fate of Saturday’s trip to Michigan State. It wasn’t until Friday night before their plane hit the skies and departed for Lansing.

While filling in as head coach, Johnson largely helped with game management for the Buckeyes, including decisions over whether to punt or kick a field goal.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson handled play-calling responsibilities, while Kerry Coombs had his fingerprints even more on the defense without co-coordinator Greg Mattison, who was among three OSU assistants to be sidelined.

Speaking with reporters over a Zoom call from his Delaware County home, Day said Johnson had long been in line to assume a head coaching role on an interim basis should he be required to miss a game.

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The topic came up with athletic director Gene Smith last year soon after Day succeeded Urban Meyer, and it is why Johnson holds the title of associate head coach.

It was a contingency plan that was cemented this year as the coronavirus pandemic has also led head coaches to miss games this season, including some of the biggest names such as Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was out for the Iron Bowl against Auburn last week.

“I think Larry has great leadership and understands how to motivate a team,” Day said. “When he stands in front of the team, the guys listen. I think his leadership had a big part in how well our team played and the energy that they played with. I couldn't be happier for him.”

Day got teary-eyed during the final seconds as he watched the ABC broadcast of the game and spotted Johnson drenched in Gatorade.

He felt he had earned the victory bath.

“I know he's been through a lot this year,” Day said. “We've all been through a lot. But to see that moment for him and this team, it was special.”