Larry Johnson was one of the few bridges from the Joe Paterno to Bill O’Brien era. Now, the coaching staff holdover has strong support from his players to become the next Penn State coach.
Johnson was appointed interim coach this week and can only hope the players’ vote of confidence carries weight when he applies for the permanent job following Bill O’Brien’s hiring by the Houston Texans.
“Why not Larry Johnson? I’ve been here 18 years, I think I know the lay of the land very well,” Johnson said Friday.
Penn State, however, has other candidates in mind to take over a program steadied by O’Brien after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
But one big name with connections to the team’s storied past is out of the running. A person familiar with the situation told the AP that former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano was not a candidate. The person said neither Schiano nor the school had interest in going through the hiring process. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the search is confidential.
Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and Miami coach Al Golden, a former Penn State captain under Paterno, are also among the possibilities on Penn State’s short list. Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak are also likely in play.
Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said Thursday the search will be over in days.
Although there will be some push from Paterno loyalists to give Johnson a chance, his odds are slim. Johnson joined the Nittany Lions’ staff in 1996 and has been the defensive line coach since 2000.
“He’s an excellent leader,” Joyner said. “He has a long history with Penn State, and he’s a great representative of what Penn State football and Penn State University is all about. I think he’s got the respect of both recruits as well as the student-athletes that are here. So in my book, Larry is a very solid individual who will be a solid base as we get through this.”
Johnson has contacted both recruits and current players, trying to keep the team together.
“I’m not worried about what’s going to happen to Larry Johnson,” he said. “I’m worried about keeping this program moving forward.”
His son, Larry, was a star running back for the Nittany Lions and the Kansas City Chiefs. He said he hasn’t thought about whether he will stay if he job goes to someone else. In that case, of course, the decision might not be his to make.
He’s already been successful in keeping freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the fold. He won Big Ten freshman of the year honors after throwing for 2,955 yards – second most in the league and third in Penn State history.
He had 20 touchdown passes with 10 interceptions and ran for four more scores in leading the Nittany Lions to a 7-5 record.
“He’s going to be back here and ready to go on the 13th and get going,” Johnson said.
Hackenberg would be just one of many players encouraged that Johnson has been kept around.
Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes wrote on Twitter, “I know me and many other players would love to have coach Johnson as our head coach, he’s a great leader and will be a great head coach.”
And tight end Jake Kiley tweeted: “Nice to hear that keeping Coach Johnson as our head coach could be an option. No one knows us or the school better.”
Johnson said he had a great final conversation with O’Brien, who became “emotional” talking about his departure. O’Brien led the Nittany Lions to two winning seasons (8-4, 7-5) while restoring some tempered enthusiasm in Happy Valley.
Less than two years after succeeding Paterno, O’Brien was introduced Friday in Houston as the Texans’ coach.
“I love the players at Penn State and I respect their toughness and their resiliency and everything that they’ve demonstrated on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I do regret not being able to continue with the great kids on that team. While I tried never to mislead anyone, I understand that some people feel let down. But again, it was a decision that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.”
And it could lead to one for Johnson.