Larry Johnson isn’t going to shy away from being himself in front of his players.
Penn State’s defensive line coach said if he wants to tell a player he loves him, he will. If he sheds a tear when his players are around, so be it. That’s how Johnson operates.
“In coaching and everything in life, no matter what job you have, you have to show people you care. And I think I care,” Johnson said. “I care about them not only as football players, but as young men, and I know I’m not afraid to show my love and my passion, I’m not afraid to cry in front of my players, because I’m going to be myself.”
Johnson — the longest-tenured assistant coach on Penn State’s staff — said he establishes a close relationship between himself and his players, which stretches far beyond the gridiron.
In his 17th season at Penn State, and his 13th as the defensive line coach, Johnson has worked with some talented players. From Courtney Brown to Devon Still, a total of seven first-team All-American defensive linemen have played under Johnson’s tutelage.
The coach said he and Brown still communicate about once a week, and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft has previously stayed with Johnson when he attended a game at Beaver Stadium.
The coach and Still — who graduated last season and is currently a defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals — shared a hug with one another at Penn State’s last home game, and Johnson said it felt like they hadn’t seen each other in forever.
When it comes down to business, however, Johnson is what current defensive end Sean Stanley called a “perfectionist.”
“He demands a lot out of us,” Stanley said. “Sometimes in practice, if you think you did a great job or something, he’ll find the littlest thing to pick on, but it’s only going to make you better.”
Johnson is the coach with the most mileage on Penn State’s staff with, but he doesn’t have much competition. Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden — who is in his 12th season — is the only other assistant who is leftover from the Lions’ former coaching regime.
Coach Bill O’Brien brought in eight new assistants after he was hired in January, and a conversation he had with Johnson kept the defensive line coach around.
“We talked about football and talked about my personal beliefs, and those kind of things, and he said ‘I would love to have you on my staff,’” Johnson said. “...The two of us just kind of met, we had the same ideas and belief in the Penn State University and a certain belief from where he was going with the program. To be honest, I’m glad I’m here, because I think he’s doing an outstanding job.”
Johnson, who was initially a candidate for the head coaching vacancy last winter, said it wasn’t too difficult to transition into working with a new staff. Working with the same players made things easier, but Johnson was forced to learn new terms.
“[Defensive coordinator Ted Roof] might call it “apple,” we call it “orange,” it’s the same stunt,” Johnson said. “So, you just have to transfer the word, but you’re not changing the way you’re teaching it, you’re just changing the word.”
Johnson has been coaching football for more than 35 years, but he said he has no plans to stop as of now, and noted he’s taking it “one year at a time.” He added he will stay at Penn State as long as O’Brien wants him on his staff.
Larry Jr. and Tony, two of Johnson’s sons, played at Penn State in the early 2000s. Though he’s had his own blood run through the program, the coach said it’s important to have a close-knit atmosphere with his defensive linemen.
If any Penn State defensive lineman can’t make it home for Thanksgiving dinner, Johnson said he will have a seat for him at his table.
“You build that family environment from day one,” Johnson said. “It’s the way it’s always been. Every group that I’ve coached, we’ve built on family concepts, because when you do that, they’ll play hard for each other. So we try to create a brand of family-hood so those guys can be close with each other.”