Johnson
Johnson (Mark Selders)

Larry Johnson Sr., the popular assistant football coach who developed six first-round draft picks, is leaving Penn State after 18 seasons.

Johnson said in a telephone interview Monday night that he declined an offer from new coach James Franklin to remain on the staff as defensive line coach. Johnson's final day at Penn State is Tuesday.

"It's been a long decision, and obviously I've been thinking about it for some time; this is not something that I just came up with," Johnson said. "But going forward with a new staff and coach Franklin at Penn State, I think the best decision for me was to move on."

Johnson, 61, has been at Penn State since 1996 and was the last remaining assistant from Joe Paterno's staff. He interviewed for the head-coaching job in 2011 and this year. Johnson said he wants to coach again in college football.

"It's something I'm entertaining, but it's got to be the right fit for me, the right place," Johnson said, declining to discuss specific opportunities.

Johnson arrived at Penn State in 1996, when Joe Paterno hired the former T.C. Williams (Va.) head coach as an assistant. Last week, Johnson remembered his first interview with Paterno, over breakfast at the Nittany Lion, where the head coach did not discuss football or salaries.


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At Penn State, Johnson developed deep bonds with his defensive linemen, many of whom are playing in the NFL. Johnson has developed seven first-team all-Americans over the past 13 years and six Big Ten defensive player of linemen of the year.

Six of Johnson's linemen have been drafted in the first round, including Jared Odrick, Tamba Hali and Courtney Brown. Two sons, Larry Jr. and Tony, played for Penn State during Johnson's term. Running back Larry Johnson Jr. was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2002.

Johnson also is considered one of the East Coast's top recruiters. In 2006, Rivals.com selected Johnson as the national college football recruiter of the year.

"I can't put into words how much this experience has meant to me," Johnson said. "The opportunity to get the job from coach Paterno and to build so many relationships with the players, I think that I'm most proud of the relationships I've developed with players off the field. That's something I will take with me. Those relationships will be ongoing. We'll never be out of contact."

After former coach Bill O'Brien left for the Houston Texans, many former and current players endorsed Johnson as his replacement. In discussing his candidacy last week, Johnson said, "Why not me?"

"I think I understand the Penn State culture, and I understand exactly where we are," Johnson said after being named interim head coach. "This is a great university, there are some great players in the locker room and I want to be part of that."

According to the website coachingsearch.com, which tracks college football coaching changes, Franklin is expected to bring Vanderbilt defensive line coach Sean Spencer to Penn State. Franklin has not announced any staff changes yet.

Johnson said Franklin "will do a great job," calling the former Vanderbilt coach "a great fit for Penn State." Franklin said Johnson told him that "I'd love to have you" on the staff. But Johnson said he understood Franklin's loyalty to his assistants and didn't want to prevent another coach from coming to Penn State.

Johnson met with his players Monday, saying he lost sleep worrying about what to say to them.

"It was a tough decision and a very tough day for me," Johnson said. "But at the end of the day, it was time to step away from Penn State and let the team grow. I'm leaving in peace and in good spirits. Sadly, I'm going to miss my players."