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Mark Johnson, Biddy Martin, Barry Alvarez, NCAA UW women's hockey title celebration
Head coach Mark Johnson (left) is congratulated by Wisconsin athletic director, Barry Alvarez, and chancellor, Biddy Martin, at the event to celebrate the UW women's hockey team's NCAA championship at the Nicholas Johnson Pavilion on Monday. GREG DIXON – For the State Journal

Mark Johnson formally interviewed this week with officials at Penn State, who have apparently made the University of Wisconsin legend the top target to coach their men's hockey program.

Johnson, who has guided the UW women's hockey team to four national titles in the past six years, said Friday he's not been offered the job and that he didn't know how he would respond if that call indeed came.

"That's the unknown," he said after he and his wife Leslie spent two days visiting the campus in University Park, Pa. "There are two sides to the coin and it just keeps bouncing back and forth."

A source said Friday that Penn State officials had Johnson at the top of their list of candidates when their search began, but they knew he might be a long shot given that Johnson has deep family roots in his hometown of Madison and an iconic connection to UW.

In addition to being the all-time leading goal-scorer for the Badgers, Johnson starred for Team USA in the fabled 1980 Winter Olympics and played 11 seasons in the NHL before working as an assistant for the UW men's team from 1996 to 2002.

But Johnson also has distinct ties to Pennsylvania — he began his NHL career in 1979 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the same club his father Bob coached to the Stanley Cup in 1990-91 and 1991-92 — which enhanced his considerable profile with Penn State officials.

According to multiple reports, Scott Sandelin, who just led Minnesota-Duluth to the NCAA men's title, also has interviewed for the chance to coach the Nittany Lions.

George Gwozdecky, a former UW teammate of Johnson's who has built Denver into a perennial national power that includes two NCAA titles, also is known to have strong interest in the job.

Thanks to an $88 million donation from billionaire philanthropist Terry Pegula, Penn State has announced plans to build a new arena and launch NCAA Division I programs for men's and women's hockey in 2012-13. The Big Ten Conference plans to sanction men's hockey starting in 2013-14.

Johnson, 53, said he had dinner with Pegula — who just purchased the Buffalo Sabres of the NHL — and came away from his first visit to Happy Valley with the clear indication Penn State wants to do things in a first-class manner.

"I owed it to myself to go in," said Johnson, who coached Team USA to the silver medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The question is, does Johnson want to leave a comfortable niche in the women's game and uproot his family — including a daughter in high school and one in grade school — to tackle a unique, more intense professional challenge?

"I'm in limbo right now," he said.

If needed, another opportunity for Johnson to meet with Penn State officials will come next week when the annual American Hockey Coaches Association convention will be held in Naples, Fla.

According to sources, Penn State officials have made it known they want a coach in place before Big Ten administrators meet in Chicago May 17 and 18.

UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said he would ensure Johnson is the highest-paid coach in the women's game and make a point of telling him "that we want to keep him, that we don't want him to leave, that we appreciate him."

It's unlikely that money will dictate what Johnson does, but Alvarez said he "can't get into a bidding war with a men's job at Penn State."