The Nittany Lions are losing their father figure, if you will.
Even more dramatic is that it appears that he may end up at rival Ohio State.
What many expected became official Monday evening when Larry Johnson told several media outlets that he would leaving Penn State after 18 years. He is expected to be replaced on new coach James Franklin’s staff by Sean Spencer, Vanderbilt’s highly-regarded defensive line coach, recruiter and motivator.
Johnson was Penn State fixture, and the last staff member of Joe Paterno. He is regarded as not just an exemplary defensive line coach but also arguably the team’s top recruiter for years. Beyond that, he became close to many of his players, who considered him a confidante and personal inspiration.
“It’s been a long decision, and obviously I’ve been thinking about it for some time; this is not something that I just came up with,” Johnson told Mark Wogenrich of the Allentown Morning Call. “But going forward with a new staff and coach Franklin at Penn State, I think the best decision for me was to move on.”
The 61-year-old Johnson told PennLive’s Bob Flounders that he “met with Franklin twice and was offered the opportunity to continue as defensive line coach at Penn State.
“But after considering the offer, LJ said he has decided to move on. He said he has not retired and plans to continue coaching.”
And now, just that quickly, it seems as if he could be headed to serve the same role, defensive line coach, under Big Ten rival Urban Meyer’s staff at Ohio State, according to Pete Thamel of SI.com.
And what a blow that would be for the Lions, who suddenly would find themselves up against one of the nation’s top recruiters from Harrisburg through northern Virginia.
Even before that news broke, talk had turned to the impact of Johnson’s departure on the current team or the 21 incoming recruits.
It probably won’t impact the five early enrollees who reported to Penn State Monday, including quarterback Michael O’Connor, receiver DeAndre Thompkins, offensive tackle Chasz Wright — and defensive tackles Tarow Barney and Antoine White.
One Penn State source said that while current players are emotionally down after the news broke, he also said he didn’t expect many, if any, of the 2014 recruiting class to leave because of this.
The source said Johnson had reached out to each member of the class he recruited to make sure they understood the value of their commitment Penn State and the reasons they chose the school — that it was more than him.
One highly-regarded member of that class, though, that does appear in jeopardy is four-star New York defensive tackle Thomas Holley, who said Johnson was instrumental in him choosing the Nittany Lions.
However, Holley’s family was expecting the departure and have not ruled out sticking with the Lions, said Brian Dohn, a national recruiting analyst with Scout.com
“I don’t see it impacting anyone else in this class,” Dohn said. “Long term? … Just because you lose one good coach doesn’t mean there’s not another one equally good or better to replace him. And that’s no disrespect at all to Larry Johnson. But there is more than one good d-line coach and one d-line recruiter in the country. You just have to hire the right guy.
“The usual reaction is ‘Ah, man, things will never be the same. How can this happen after 20 years?’ It’s the fear of the unknown that gets people (upset) with his kind of stuff.
“I don’t think this is any doomsday scenario for recruiting.”