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Ben State Football: Penn State Owes Three Coaches A Public Thank You, One Set To Return Saturday

by on October 20, 2014 2:00 PM

For a program and university that takes so much pride in its tradition and history, Penn State football has had few chances to reach out to former coaches and thank them for their contributions.

But this weekend, when long time assistant Larry Johnson returns to Beaver Stadium as an Ohio State assistant, Penn State has an opportunity to do just that.

Johnson, who was as successful a defensive line coach as he was recruiter was a staple of life in Happy Valley for nearly two decades. Known as much for his ability to coach as much as his ability to speak quietly and insightfully, Johnson had become nearly as synonymous for Penn State football as Joe Paterno himself.

However, like many things attached to Penn State and Paterno, in 2011, a fairly abrupt ending awaited Johnson after his short tenure as interim head coach. The hiring of James Franklin would brush Johnson aside and a transition to Ohio State would start a new life for him.

Johnson never coached a game as a head coach, he never held more than a few hallway press conferences and he never hit the talk show circuit. But for the second straight transition period, Johnson was the glue that kept recruits and the roster on the same page. He had jut nine days to keep a program together that wasn't even his anymore. He executed the mission and moved on.

And now he's coming back.

Admittedly college programs go through a lot of head coaches and a lot of assistants. Even Penn State rarely mentions the existence of one-time assistant and now Detroit Lions' head coach Jim Caldwell. To honor all of them in many ways creates more issues than it does anything else.

But coaches like Johnson and not to be forgotten West Virginia assistant Tom Bradley are undoubtedly owed a moment of appreciation. If for no other reason than the simple fact their hard work and effort in their final days at Penn State may have kept the Penn State rebuilding project just appealing enough to lure in James Franklin.

Both Johnson and Bradley may have been privately disappointed for not getting a real chance to hold a job they both coveted in a former life, but that emotion likely does not overshadow their affection for a town and program they called home for so many years. A new administration only helps to make a return more enjoyable. 

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Ultimately in the middle of the electricity and emotion that will be inside Beaver Stadium on Saturday night, Penn State may opt to do nothing special for Johnson. He may not want it to distract from the game and Franklin may not want to make his first few moments in this rivalry come in the form of a nod to an opponent's coach.

No matter what does or does not happen, the opportunity is there to say thanks. It's a chance that Penn State has rarely taken aside from the reintroduction of Paterno into a few pump up videos that run prior to games.

And as former head coach Bill O'Brien coaches against the Steelers on Monday Night Football, one has to wonder what will become of him. He's too busy on weekends to find himself on the sidelines of Beaver Stadium but O'Brien is equally a man who's too important to pretend he didn't exists. O'Brien is living in an ambiguous world where he publicly supports Penn State while simultaneously appreciating the circumstances under which he left the program. 

Like Bradley, it seems that only a special set of circumstances will allow for O'Brien to make his return. What those circumstances might be won't become apparent until they actually happen.

That's why Johnson's return to State College is a noteworthy moment. Penn State owes a lot of men a debt -- those three most of all. Of course, Johnson may be the only one to return anytime soon.

With two big fancy scoreboards, it wouldn't take much to give fans a chance to say thanks to Johnson, followed by a reminder they all hope he loses on Saturday night.

Fans might be grateful, but he coaches for Ohio State now. So the love won't last long, at least not on Saturdays.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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