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From Happy Valley to Columbus: How Larry Johnson Ended Up a Buckeye

After Being Passed Over for Top Job at PSU, Johnson Bolts for Ohio State

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James Franklin may prove to be a huge success at Penn State. But he'll do it without longtime Penn State assistant Larry Johnson.

Getty Images Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer's hire of Larry Johnson could improve Ohio State's defensive play--and its recruiting efforts, too.

(Getty Images)

Coaching transitions are never easy, never simple and never without some measure of fallout. 

And the latest evidence of this college football truth can be seen at Penn State, where the departure of Bill O'Brien has not only had repercussions in Happy Valley, but all across the Big Ten. 

O'Brien, who guided the Nittany Lions to back-to-back winning seasons in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, left Penn State for the Houston Texans a couple weeks back. His departure opened up one of the biggest jobs in college football, and it didn't take long for Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner to find somebody to take it. 

After a rapid-fire search that saw Joyner interview both former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak and current Miami Hurricanes coach (and Penn State alum) Al Golden, Joyner eventually found his man in the charismatic James Franklin, who made his name by actually finding ways to play winning football at Vanderbilt. Franklin has been lauded as a home-run hire by most pundits, and has quickly become a favorite up in Happy Valley. 

But even in the wake of the excitement caused by Franklin's arrival, there has been some turmoil. And in the end, it's the Ohio State Buckeyes who stand to benefit. 

Before Franklin's hiring, Penn State placed longtime Nittany Lions defensive line coach Larry Johnson in the position of "interim coach;" essentially, Johnson was tasked with holding the team (and the incoming recruiting class) together while the coaching search unfolded. Notably, Johnson also interviewed for the job himself, though he always seemed to be, at best, a longshot to take over. 

And so it came to pass that Johnson was passed over in favor of Franklin, who was asked during his introductory press conference whether or not he would be offering a job to the ever-popular Johnson, who is not only beloved by his players and Penn State fans, but is also regarded as one of the top recruiters in the nation. Franklin responded that while he was "loyal" to his staff at Vanderbilt, he would be having conversations with the remaining members of O'Brien's staff, Johnson included. 

According to various reports, that's precisely what happened. In fact, some have reported that Johnson was offered a spot on Franklin's staff. 

But in the end, the offer wasn't good enough. 

Because instead, Johnson shocked just about everybody--not least, Penn State fans--by accepting the defensive line coaching position at (gasp) Ohio State, under coach Urban Meyer. That's right: After 19 years of working for the Nittany Lions, Johnson is going to work for Nits' biggest in-conference rival. He will do well at Ohio State. And yes, Penn State will miss him greatly. It's a genius move by Meyer, and it's one that would never have been possibly, ironically, but for the very decision that got this whole chain of events moving in the first place.

Let me explain.

When O'Brien left Penn State for Houston, Johnson was left behind, either by his own choice or by O'Brien's. Which meant that O'Brien needed to find a new defensive line coach for the Texans. He found that guy, it turns out, in Columbus, which is now former Ohio State assistant Mike Vrabel ended up joining O'Brien's staff last week. At the time, Penn State fans considered the hiring a parting gift from O'Brien--hiring away one of their rival's best assistants.

But how wrong they were. 

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