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Larry Johnson Sr. leaving Penn State football program

| Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, 10:03 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. coaches against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 7, 2013, in University Park.

Larry Johnson Sr. came to the final decision to step away from Penn State on Monday.

He had been bracing for parting ways for longer than that.

Johnson, the Nittany Lions' longtime defensive assistant, turned down an offer from new coach James Franklin to stay on as defensive line coach. Johnson started at Penn State in 1996.

“I'm OK. I really am at peace with it,” Johnson said by phone late Monday evening. “It's a decision I've come to in the past 72 hours, but it was something I had to come to grips with the minute I took the interim job.

“I'm blessed. I just felt, at this moment right now, this was the best thing: to part ways. But I'm still really supportive of Coach Franklin and Penn State going forward.”

Johnson, who intends to remain in the coaching business, was the final Lions staff member to have coached under Joe Paterno. Penn State's popular defensive line coach, Johnson was interim head coach for nine days between Bill O'Brien leaving to accept a job with the NFL's Houston Texans and Franklin's hiring Saturday.

Johnson met with the defensive linemen to tell them of his decision, and he spent much of Monday calling other players on the team he recruited, as well as the team's current recruits and parents of recruits and players.

Johnson was one of Penn State's top recruiters for almost two decades — part of what made him a natural choice to step in as interim coach after O'Brien's departure. Johnson, to this point, held the Lions' recruiting class together through an uncertain period, although it remains to be seen if some of those players will open up their recruitments to other schools.

Most prominent in that group is New York City defensive tackle Thomas Holley, Penn State's highest-rated recruit by Rivals.com. Holley could not be immediately reached for comment, but he has made no secret of his admiration for Johnson and his role in Holley choosing Penn State.

Well known and respected in the State College community, Johnson was a players' favorite, too. Several took to Twitter to support Johnson's cause for the permanent head coach position Johnson sought and interviewed for last week.

“I know me and many other players would love to have coach Johnson as our head coach, he's a great leader and will be a great head coach,” tweeted defensive end Deion Barnes after Johnson was named interim coach Jan. 2.

“I really think they need to give Coach J a shot, he definitely deserves it been here through it all #mythoughts,” defensive tackle Austin Johnson tweeted two days later.

The 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Barnes joins All-Pro Tamba Hali, 2000 NFL No. 1 overall draft pick Courtney Brown and NFL defensive linemen Michael Haynes, Jordan Hill, Devon Still and Jack Crawford among those who learned from Johnson.

“No question, what I'm going to miss most are my players,” Johnson said. “I had a great relationship not only with this team but with all the players who have come through, and then the relationship with the fanbase. ... But I'm blessed to have had an opportunity to stay at one place for 18 years. You don't get that too often in college coaching anymore.”

Johnson listed Paterno's milestone victories and the 2012 team's 8-4 record in overcoming historic NCAA sanctions among his best memories at Penn State.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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