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January 13, 2014

Column: Johnson's departure marks another end

In a literal sense, the news of Larry Johnson's departure from the Penn State coaching staff marks the end of another era.

There are plenty of them, of course. Though support personnel and staffers remain in the Lasch Building bridging the gap between eras, Johnson was the last remaining assistant coach from Joe Paterno's staff at Penn State during the 2011 football season. With it, a 19-year career with the Nittany Lions has come to a close.

"I want to say that I am very appreciative of all that went into my time at Penn State, all the players I've coached and all of the associations that I have," Johnson said to PennLive.com's Bob Flounders on Monday night.

"But I've thought a lot about this, I've prayed about it and this is what I want to do. I wish Coach Franklin and Penn State the best but it's time for me. It's a very difficult time but I want to thank the fans, the players, and Penn State. I mean that."

The announced departure for Johnson appears to have been a mere formality for days following the decision by Penn State's six-person search committee to name James Franklin the program's 16th head coach.

Joining Penn State's staff before the 1996 season, Johnson was at first in charge of the Nittany Lions' defensive ends and special teams' units for three seasons before being named the defensive line coach in 2000. From that point on, Johnson helped mold five first-team All-Americans out of Penn State's defensive line, including Courtney Brown, Tamba Hali, Michael Haynes, Jimmy Kennedy and most recently, Devon Still.

Following the firing of Paterno in 2011, interim head coach Tom Bradley named Johnson and former linebackers' coach Ron Vanderlinden co-defensive coordinators for the final four games of the season.

Once Penn State hired new head coach Bill O'Brien, Johnson was immediately retained and named the first assistant coach on O'Brien's new staff for the 2012 season, back at defensive line.

Regardless of the quality of Franklin's defensive line coach - set to be Sean Spencer as reported by CoachingSearch.com on Monday - there's little question that the Nittany Lions will feel the loss of Johnson's departure both inside and out of the Lasch Building.

At its most obvious, Johnson is a highly motivational and inspirational figure.

From the countless players who have been molded into men under Johnson's tutelage (and often turn into the most quotable Nittany Lions), Johnson's record of success in transforming potential-laden players into true superstars speaks for itself. Even speaking from personal experience, one-on-one interviews and conversations with the man were always affable, pleasant and, more often than not, left this interviewer feeling like becoming a better man was merely a few steps away.

Truly, the man's aura and words were and are a powerful experience unto themselves.

Like any great teacher, however, Johnson wasn't able to reach every pupil, including some of the highly-sought after recruits he landed during his time at Penn State. Occasionally a recruiting risk-taker on prospects with questionable backgrounds, clearly, problems would occasionally follow during some players' careers as Nittany Lions.

Still, considered one of the program's top recruiters and developers of talent for the past decade, Johnson's positives far outweighed the negatives. Especially in recruiting, Johnson helped the Nittany Lions own the greater Baltimore-Washington D.C. metropolitan area, as well as Virginia's Tidewater and Chesapeake regions.

Where Johnson decides to go from here remains unclear. In the PennLive.com article, Johnson, 61, says he is not done in football, but has simply run his course in his career with the Nittany Lions.

Bringing a larger-than-life gravitas to Penn State's football staff for nearly two decades, it's a contribution that current players, Lettermen, and fans aren't likely to forget anytime soon.





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