By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas — You only get one question with Brent Venables, so make it count because he is gonna answer the hell out of it.
I wish I’d known that last Thursday afternoon.
Inside the visiting locker room at AT&T Stadium for Big 12 Media Days, I sat anticipating the arrival of just the third head coach of the University of Oklahoma football team since 1998.
I had more than two dozen questions ready for Venables, who is not only Oklahoma’s new coach, but a man who had spent 13 years as a Sooners defensive assistant and was a member of the most recent OU football team to win a national championship.
Brent Venables on why Sooners are his best fit
RJ Young sits down with new Sooners coach Brent Venables at Big 12 Media Days. Venables shares what it was like when Oklahoma first reached out and explains why it’s the perfect time for him to take this next step in his career.
I had so many questions because this was the first time in my life that I would shake the hand of a man who felt more like extended family than a stranger. In fact, when Venables left OU more than a decade ago and helped Dabo Swinney and Clemson win two national championships in the past seven years, I couldn’t help but be proud of him.
What makes that even more strange is the way Venables’ defenses beat Oklahoma’s vaunted offenses like a rented mule.
In the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, Venables’ Tigers held OU to just six points. A year later, in the 2015 Orange Bowl, his Tigers held OU’s rushing attack to just 67 yards on 33 carries, and held the entire offense scoreless in the second half.
His 2018 defense, though, was perhaps his magnum opus. It allowed a true freshman quarterback named Trevor Lawrence to come off the bench, start, acclimate and then make like U.S. Special Forces and operate.
All four of Venables’ starting defensive linemen were drafted in 2019, including three among the first 17 picks. And that’s before we begin to discuss how Venables converted a three-star wide receiver into a Destroyer-of-Worlds linebacker named Isaiah Simmons.
How did he find these players? How did he develop these players? Why did one of the most sought-after assistant coaches in the sport choose Oklahoma? These were just three questions on my mind when Venables entered the locker room.
As he sat down across from me, I couldn’t help noticing he had the look of a senior pastor at a moderately sized church more than a football coach. That’s a stark contrast for a man whose intensity, tenacity and sheer focus are his calling card.
Venables’ antics on the sideline at Clemson are legendary. He even needed his own “get back” coach, someone to tell him to “get back,” lest he wander onto the field of play and draw a penalty.
It’s not that Venables didn’t know the rules. It’s that nothing was more important to him than communicating to his players the play and their alignment. An assistant to Clemson’s strength and conditioning coach was assigned to Venables, tasked with pulling him backward by the pants in case he wandered too far.
I wondered if he might need a get-back coach as a head coach? Or if he’d even be calling defensive plays as a head coach? I could have led with any one of those questions.
Instead, I asked him: When this job opened, and you were contacted, what was your response?
I didn’t know that would be the only question I would have time to ask him.
What I got in response was an 11-minute sermon from a man who is buoyed by his faith, his relentless pursuit of excellence and his fanatical devotion to his players and bosses. That’s how much Venables loves this job, wants this job and wants to be understood by all who are interested in OU football.
Bob Stoops first met Venables when he was recruiting him as a 17-year-old high school senior at Salina (Kansas) South High. Since that day, Venables has played for and worked with just three head coaches as a player or assistant: former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, Stoops and Swinney.
“I got into the profession as a player,” Venables said. “I found my purpose through the game and through relationships. Then, when I’m 51, I get my first head job at a place that [Stoops] got his first head job.
“He helped guide me, if you will, during the initial interview process [at Oklahoma] and in multiple conversations over the next several days. I know I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for his blessing, I can assure you. But that’s how God works.”
Venables learned early in his career that he did not want to do what so many coaches must do to earn a living or seek a promotion: move. He was a graduate assistant at K-State when an assistant on Snyder’s staff took him aside to share what this assistant thought was wisdom.
“And this guy had been at like 30 places,” Venables said. “So, he says, ‘There’s only two kinds of coaches: Those that have been fired, and those that are going to be fired.’ And I was insulted. I’ll be honest — I was mad.”
Venables gave a respectful, “Yes, sir.” But inside he fumed. At that moment, he made a decision.
“In my mind, I was like, ‘That’s not going to be me.’”
And from the minute he stepped into coaching in 1993 in Manhattan, Kansas, to accepting his first head-coaching gig in 2021 at Norman, Oklahoma, it hasn’t been.
Venables has staked himself to the ground on the philosophy of building community through longevity and loyalty. At OU, perhaps no one was better suited to step into a role that yearned for the personification of stability, resilience and a righteous need to win.
At OU, you’ve gotta want it. It’s the flagship in a state with just under four million people, a state that has been ravaged by mighty tornadoes, floods, drought and at times, unimaginable tragedy.
The man who stewards the Oklahoma program is as important, if not more so, than the governor. He is expected to reciprocate the unfettered fanaticism by winning at the highest level and staying until he’s asked to leave or chooses to retire. It’s not a fair deal, and it’s not an easy one.
That’s why Venables is the right man for Oklahoma, and that’s why he’s hell-bent on proving it. He started that process when he spoke to his new team at length via Zoom about what they can expect from him and what he expects from them.
Oklahoma defensive end Ethan Downs didn’t watch a lot of college football growing up. He preferred to play. So he knew Venables mainly by name and reputation. And, honestly, that went only so far for Downs, who wasn’t won over by his role in Venables’ scheme or the promise of more playing time. Instead, he was won over by the way the coach approached him and his teammates when they were allowed to meet in person for the first time.
Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel and Ethan Downs
FOX Sports’ RJ Young is joined by Oklahoma QB Dillon Gabriel and DE Ethan Downs at Big 12 Media Days.
“He’s treating us like we’re so precious to him,” Downs said. “The first time I saw him in person, he comes into the Red Room, essentially a big team meeting room, and he lays a Bible on the podium. I’d never seen that from a coach before.
“I’m heavy in my faith. That’s what I strive for my morals to be like, biblically based. And he brings in a Bible not to force it on us, not to force scripture on us, but to say, ‘Hey, this is a standard that I base my standards off. This is where we’re gonna go.’ And it was very refreshing.”
Along with Venables came renowned Clemson defensive line coach Todd Bates, former Texas A&M strength and conditioning coordinator Jerry Schmidt, former Alabama cornerbacks coach Jay Valai and Clemson defensive assistant Ted Roof.
Each one has had a hand in reshaping an Oklahoma team that lost quite a bit of talent from a 2021 squad that won 11 games. Venables and his staff were forced to bring a roster full of noobs to the program, but players who have been battle-tested in FBS.
By Venables’ math, 40% of his roster hasn’t worn an OU uniform before, but his 15 transfers have 243 combined starts under their belts. Clearly the most important of those transfers to OU’s success is quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who had two outstanding seasons and one cut short by injury at Central Florida. In 2019 and 2020, he threw for 7,223 total yards and had a five-to-one TD to INT ratio.
Gabriel entered the transfer portal and came out committed to UCLA. He was boarding a flight to Los Angeles when newly minted OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby gave him a call yelling, “Boomer Sooner!”
Gabriel played for Lebby, who was coming from Ole Miss, at UCF. When Lebby proposed they get the band back together, Gabriel thought he was joking. Lebby assured him he was not, and Gabriel never got on that flight to L.A.
While some folks believe the Sooners are bound to take a step back — especially at quarterback after Caleb Williams followed Lincoln Riley to USC — Gabriel has shown himself to be the kind of QB a school in transition needs. He has already taken the skill players on a retreat at a ranch in Lawton, Oklahoma, and steadied those same teammates as they learned a playbook that he has mastered over the past three years.
Most of all, though, he takes his leadership cues from Venables.
“He’s just tenacious,” Gabriel said. “He’s just obsessed with the game of football. His energy was infectious right when we first spoke, and we just instantly connected with one another. For me, that was a great feeling.”
That was nearly eight months ago. Now, with just six weeks left until Week 1, the Sooners are gearing up to see how far they can go to start a new era in Venables’ first season.
“You only get one opportunity, one chance, to be a first-time head coach and to do things the right way the first time,” he said.
I would have loved to ask him what some of those things are, but we ran out of time.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.
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