Courtney Brown hasn't played for Larry Johnson in more than a dozen years. But the former Penn State All-American and No. 1 overall draft choice still calls or texts his former defensive line coach each week, and stays at Johnson's home when he visits State College. Devon Still has been gone less than a year, but saw Johnson on the sideline at a recent game and embraced him "like we never saw each other in our life," Johnson said.
Larry Johnson has been on the Penn State coaching staff since 1996.
In a little over three weeks, senior defensive linemen Jordan Hill, Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro will play for Penn State, and for Johnson, for the last time, and join Brown, Still, and the dozens of others who have played for arguably the team's most beloved assistant coach when the Nittany Lions host Wisconsin. It's a day Johnson is not looking forward to.
"It's going to be a tough day for Coach J," he said.
After spending more than a dozen seasons tutoring some of the nation's best defensive linemen under Joe Paterno, Johnson now fills the same role -- coach, mentor, confidant -- on Bill O'Brien's staff.
"In coaching, and everything in life, you've got to show people you care," Johnson said Thursday. "And I care about them not only as football players but as young men. I'm not afraid to show emotion, cry in front of my players. … I'm not afraid to tell them I love them. And they'll say it back. and that's because we know each other."
Johnson personally recruits many of the linemen who play for him. The rest quickly discover that he takes the player-coach relationship very seriously, whether that's in "his room" (the defensive linemen film room) or at his home, where players often gather for meals or simply to hang out.
"You build that as a family environment from day one," he said. "Not just this group but every group I've coached. When you do that they play harder for each other."
When Paterno was fired last November, Johnson and fellow assistant Ron Vanderlinden ran the defense as coordinator Tom Bradley stepped into the interim head coaching role. After the season, Johnson strongly considered getting out of coaching. He didn't entertain phone calls from other interested schools, and there were a few. But Penn State was a different matter.
"I felt I owed it to guys in my room to have an opportunity to talk to Coach O'Brien," he said. "That conversation is the reason I'm here."
Johnson was one of the top recruiters on Paterno's staff and continues to work his extensive contacts in Maryland and Virginia. The NCAA sanctions against Penn State will make that part of Johnson's job challenging for the next few years but he said he's been pleased at the way high school coaches have rallied around the program.
"Believe it or not, the coaches in my area have all reached out," he said. "They're saying, 'Anybody we have, you got the first shot at them.' Coaches are calling and saying, 'We're with you guys.'"
How long will Johnson be with the Nittany Lions? Vanderlinden said last week he hopes to coach 10 more years. Johnson chuckled when he received a question about how he envisioned his coaching future.
"It's one year at a time for me," he said. "I don't think that far ahead about how many more years I want to go. I'm going to be here as long as Coach O'Brien wants me here."
If Johnson, who began his coaching career in 1974 at Lackey High School in Maryland, had college head-coaching aspirations, they've since abated.
"I'm a very simple guy," he said. "I know what I want to do. Being a head coach is not the thing that's going to satisfy me and I'm OK with that. … I am really happy where I'm at. Great town, great place. I'm close to my grandkids. I have everything I want here."
That includes a house that is frequently filled with some of the biggest students on campus. And dinner conversation isn't about sacks or stunts.
"One of the rules we have when we come around the house is we don't talk football," he said. "You get to know them better if they're being themselves.
"They get to take the food that's left over," he added. "I think they like that, too."