UNIVERSITY PARK — Just seconds after Tony Johnson picked up his father’s phone on Wednesday, he needed to grab a pencil.
The cellphone tucked between an ear and shoulder, Tony, Larry Johnson Sr.’s middle child, snagged a writing implement and took down a message for his dad, Penn State’s interim head football coach.
“He’s pretty busy tonight,” Tony Johnson said on Wednesday.
While his younger son fielded media requests just hours after the Centre Daily Times learned that the 61-year-old defensive line guru had been named to his current post, Johnson was busy plugging away on other phones nearby. He was calling recruits and coordinating with other team officials, working furiously behind the scenes to formulate a plan in the wake of Bill O’Brien’s departure for the NFL coaching ranks.
And although Johnson is Penn State’s temporary fill-in, he has plenty of support from current players who believe Johnson should get a chance at the job permanently.
“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,” junior defensive end Deion Barnes tweeted.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman tweeted: “I would love to see coach Johnson be like (the Steelers’) Mike Tomlin and he the head coach as a figure and let a talented OC and DC call the plays.”
Junior defensive back Adrian Amos and former Nittany Lion Adam Taliaferro also offered support for Johnson on Twitter.
Penn State Director of Athletics Dave Joyner did not rule out the possibility of Johnson ultimately becoming the next head coach, but also wouldn’t confirm if Johnson has applied or interviewed, or if he has plans to do so.
Johnson did not return calls for this story and was not available to the media at Penn State’s press conference on Thursday.
“He’s an extremely stable individual who’s very well thought of,” Joyner said. “He’s an excellent leader. He has a long history with Penn State and he’s a great representative of what Penn State football and Penn State University is all about.”
All 18 years of Johnson’s collegiate coaching experience have come at Penn State.
He’s regarded as one of the country’s finest position coaches and has drawn interest for other coaching jobs in the past. Johnson turned down an offer to become Illinois’ defensive coordinator under Ron Zook in 2008. In 2005, Johnson was named National Recruiter of the Year by Rivals.com.
His influence in recruiting has been felt up and down the East Coast, primarily in Maryland and Virginia, where he previously coached high school football teams and helped convince some of that area’s best talent to venture north to Happy Valley.
Johnson has had a direct hand in helping convince eight of Penn State’s current 19 committed recruits to decide on Penn State, including five-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley.
Holley’s high school coach, Shawn O’Connor, told the New York Daily News on Tuesday that Holley would probably remain committed to Penn State as long as Johnson remains with the program.
Meanwhile, players Johnson mentored over the years also tweeted support for their former position coach.
Devon Still and Jared Odrick, two players who have found recent success in the NFL, both expressed support for their former mentor.
In a statement released by Penn State, Johnson said he looks forward to the opportunity he has now.
“This program has a historic past and very bright future,” Johnson said, “and I look forward to continuing to work with the players, staff and our incoming recruiting class to uphold the tremendous traditions, ideals and principles that make Penn State the best university in the nation and the football program the most successful on and off the field.”
For now, Joyner believes Johnson is the best man to get that done during at least this interim phase, as a search committee determines a successor to Bill O’Brien, now with the Houston Texans.
“He means a lot to Penn State, and he's meant a lot to these players over the years,” Joyner said. “So we’re very, very fortunate to have a man of Larry Johnson’s caliber to be able to act as the glue right now in between.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.