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Home Cookin': Family Mindset Enough to Fill Larry Johnson’s Career Goals

by on November 01, 2012 11:25 PM

Larry Johnson is the elder statesman on the Penn State staff and one of the most renowned assistant coaches on the East Coast. Since joining the staff in 1996, his list of protégés who have absorbed his teaching like a sponge reads like a Who’s Who of collegiate standouts or NFL defensive linemen: Courtney Brown, Michael Haynes, Jimmy Kennedy, Anthony Adams, Jay Alford, Tamba Hali, Phil Taylor, Maurice Evans, Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick, Devon Still. Next in line, the senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill.

Now on the other side of 60, it’s worth asking how long Johnson wants to keep coaching. Many motivating factors exist in the profession; money and title are two. He bowed out of consideration for the Illinois defensive coordinator position a few years ago. Most recently, he declined to be considered for Maryland’s defensive coordinator opening. Perhaps there was a time those things appealed to Johnson. It does not seem so likely anymore.

"I'm a very simple guy in the sense that I know what I want to do, and being a head coach is not going to be the thing that's going to satisfy me and I'm OK with that,” Johnson said. “I just wanna be the best coach I can be. And being that is what's driving me every day, that I create a brand that's very special as a coach. And coaching the defensive line, that's what I do and I'm OK with that.

“I’m not putting out applications. I’m really happy where I’m at. It’s a great town, great place, close to my grandkids. And my focus has all changed because I have everything I want here. I don’t wanna sound like a cornball, but I’m really happy here at Penn State University and I’m happy what I’m doing and I’m really happy coaching the players I have in my room. That keeps my focus.”

To an outsider’s perspective, the brand Johnson has built lies in the men collecting Sunday paychecks from the National Football League. But the foundation of that brand rests on his mantra of family. There’s no better example than the cookout-style gatherings Johnson holds at his home for his players. At least once a year — usually around Fourth of July — Johnson invites his position group and more players over to his house for food, games and fellowship. He’ll host a bunch on Thanksgiving this year, as Penn State’s schedule overlaps with Thanksgiving break. There’s only one rule: No talking football.

Johnson will man the grill, often times savory ribs in the humid summer air. His wife, Christine, will handle all the cooking inside: macaroni and cheese, baked beans, potato salad, fried chicken. It’s been a tradition since he starting coaching the defensive line 13 years ago.

“That’s the environment you get to know them better is them being themselves,” Johnson said. “That’s what they love.” And who’s to argue otherwise? Johnson’s players adore the man.

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“I’m not afraid to show my love and my passion,” he said. “I’m not afraid to cry in front of my players because I’m going to be myself. I think I’m very honest with my players. I think that’s the foundation with building a great relationship with young players - being honest, being upfront; they know that I’m tough. I want them to be the best, and to be the best, I’m gonna push them to a level they have never been at before.”

There's no sign of this run of excellence slowing down. Hill should be considered for All-Big Ten this season. Deion Barnes, a redshirt freshman defensive end, and Anthony Zettel, another young defensive lineman, are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the team lead for sacks, combining for seven heading into Saturday's game at Purdue (3:30 p.m./ESPNU). But how much longer can Penn State fans expect the run to last?

“It’s one year at a time for me,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that far ahead about how many more years I wanna go. I’ve got a plan in my mind, but I really haven’t thought about that long term. I’m gonna be here as long as Coach O'Brien wants me here, I do know that.”

Johnson pondered his coaching future not long after Joe Paterno was fired last November. Ministry had struck a chord once, his wife said. Even taking a year or two off was on the table because of severance packages made available to any coach not retained by Paterno’s successor.

“He would’ve found another job,” his wife said.

Johnson would decide he didn’t want to entertain phone calls or other job offers. When Bill O’Brien was hired in early January, Johnson felt he owed it to his players to have a conversation with O’Brien, who announced at his introductory press conference Johnson would be retained on the staff.

“It wasn’t nerve-racking for me at all,” said Johnson’s wife, who feels blessed to have been able to settle down in one community despite her husband’s oft-transient profession. She had Grammy duty on Thursday, watching over son Tony’s kids.

“I’m just open and I’m sensitive to what the Lord is saying. If He had said to move then we would’ve moved. I wasn’t sensing that. We needed to stay firm and wait for the Lord to tell us what to do.”

Said Johnson: “That conversation was the reason why I’m still here. We talked about football and our personal beliefs. We had the same ideas and same beliefs in Penn State University.”

Johnson is one of Penn State’s biggest assets from a recruiting and coaching standpoint. Retaining him was key, and every year he remains on staff is a luxury for O’Brien. Whenever that time is up, his lasting mark will be producing a bevy of outstanding defensive linemen he would treat no different than his sons.

"There's a lot of rewards," Johnson said. "Those guys, they never stop coming back. I saw Devon Still on the sideline [Saturday] and we embraced like we'd never seen each other in our life. That shows not only that we care for each other, but it's just appreciation of what you've done and touched their lives.''



Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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