Johnson trying to keep Penn State together

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Larry Johnson still remembers driving his van through the valleys of central Pennsylvania 18 years ago and sitting down to breakfast with Joe Paterno for a job interview.

The former high school coach spent weeks preparing what he might say to the man in the Coke-bottled glasses. And he smiled Friday afternoon when recalling it all and harkening back to that conversation.

"Not one football question," Johnson said. "He talked to me about life. ... I've never forgotten that. Sometimes, with coaches, it's not about the X's and the O's, it's about the people, and Coach Paterno saw that. And I'm grateful."

Johnson is the interim head coach at Penn State now, and his main duty these past few days hasn't revolved around game-planning at all -- but around those people and getting them past the departure of Bill O'Brien. He held a conference call Thursday with half the football team, and he said he'll host another call later on Friday. No player has yet voiced his desire to leave, Johnson said, and some already plan to arrive next week to hit the weight room early.

He's called up recruits -- he said they all have his number, too, if they want to chat one-on-one. At least one top recruit, ESPN 300 wideout De'Andre Thompkins has publicly stated that he remains true to his Penn State commitment.

Johnson has been charged with keeping this team together throughout another head coaching change, and he couldn't be blamed for feeling stressed or overworked.

So it was a little odd to hear him calmly address the media and refer to these last few days as "fun."

"Lost sleep, but it's been fun. It really has," Johnson said. "It's been a great deal of fun to mesh this thing together. My focus is on our players and to make sure there's a smooth transition for whoever gets the job."

Johnson said the top of his desk is an absolute mess, but that's only because the transition and short-term future of this program rests on his shoulders. He shook a few hands with TV reporters following a 12-minute interview, before briskly exiting the hallway door and climbing the stairs to his office. To do more work, undoubtedly.

He's the only coach left from the Paterno era, and he's long been a player favorite. Cincinnati Bengals DT Devon Still changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of Johnson and has spent the last 24 hours retweeting praise for the coach. He's not the only one.

It's clear, no matter what Johnson's role, that he's still incredibly important to this program.

"My reason for staying has been because of my players, I'll tell you that right now," Johnson said. "It has nothing to do with salary, money or title. When I tell a guy I'm going to be there, I believe that -- and I hope they believe that."

Johnson has long been known as the Nittany Lions' top recruiter, and it's been a surprise he hasn't yet wandered off from Happy Valley for a promotion elsewhere. He turned down a coordinator position with Illinois following the 2008 season, which would've basically doubled his salary. And then, in 2011, he declined to put his name in for Maryland's coordinator job.

His reason, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News? He couldn't accept the gig after telling Penn State commits that he would be the one coaching them the next season.

Johnson said Friday that Penn State hasn't taken a step back -- not yet, anyway -- with O'Brien's departure. And he's right -- the extent of this impact on the Nittany Lions won't be known for weeks, maybe months. But, if PSU can get through this, Johnson will undoubtedly be a big reason for it. Even if he's not the next head coach.

"We got a great university, a great faculty, a great student body" he said. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?"