For 46 years, Penn State had the same head coach. Now a handful of upperclassmen will technically have five of them during their time in Happy Valley.
Some of them, however, would be perfectly happy to have that number stop at coach No. 4 — Larry Johnson.
Johnson, the long-time defensive line guru of the Nittany Lions, was officially named the program’s interim head coach. He’s filling in, at least temporarily, for the spot held by Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien, as well as former colleague Tom Bradley, who served as interim coach himself to bridge the two eras.
“Larry Johnson is a tremendous individual, as you all know,” Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. “He means a lot to Penn State, and he’s meant a lot to these players over the years. So we’re very, very fortunate to have a man of Larry Johnson’s caliber to be able to act as the glue right now in between.”
While Joyner was addressing the media, Lions players — who are still scattered around the country during semester break — began simultaneously expressing their own thoughts via social media.
“I know me and other players would love to have Coach Johnson as our head coach,” wrote Deion Barnes, who is instructed directly by Johnson on the defensive line. “He’s a great leader and will be a great head coach.”
Barnes’ thoughts were echoed by players such as Adrian Amos and Nyeem Wartman.
Two years ago, Johnson interviewed for the head job along with a handful of other former Paterno assistants before being immediately retained by O’Brien.
“If Coach Johnson wants to get into the mix, he will be very much welcomed,” Joyner said. “He will be given every strong consideration for someone of his stature.”
Johnson was the lone potential candidate that Joyner would address specifically.
Regardless of who ends up with the full-time job, Johnson would figure to still be an essential part of any new staff, given his close relationship with Penn State players as well as incoming recruits. The school would risk several defections from both camps without Johnson.
With plenty of work to do in keeping in touch with recruits just a month out from signing day, Johnson was not made available for questions Thursday.
In a statement, he was effusive in his praise for the school he has worked at since 1996.
“My job will be made very easy since we have a team comprised of tremendous student-athletes, coaches, trainers and support staff who are second to none and care as much about Penn State as I do,” Johnson said. “This program has a historic past and very bright future and I look forward to continuing to work with the players, staff and our incoming recruiting class to uphold the tremendous traditions, ideals and principles that make Penn State the best university in the nation and the football program the most successful on and off the field.”
Johnson, a former high school coach in Virginia and Maryland, has placed several of his linemen into the NFL, with a handful going in the first round. He also rates as Penn State’s most successful recruiter over the years.
“He’s an extremely stable individual who’s very well thought of,” Joyner said. “He’s an excellent leader. He has a long history with Penn State, and he’s a great representative of what Penn State football and Penn State University is all about.
“I think he’s got the respect of both recruits as well as the student‑athletes that are here. So in my book, Larry is a solid — very solid — individual who will be a solid base as we get through this.”