NORMAN, Okla. — Brent Venables got his first welcome-to-the-hot-seat moment well before his first game as Oklahoma’s new coach.
He attacked that controversy the same way he took on ball-carriers as a gritty, undersized linebacker at Kansas State — head on.
Earlier this month, Oklahoma said assistant head coach Cale Gundy spoke a “racially charged” word multiple times during a film session as he was reading off of a player’s device. Gundy, a popular ex-Sooners quarterback, quickly resigned and Venables accepted.
Public support around Gundy swelled in the hours that followed, but Venables stood fast. Still establishing his team’s culture as a first-year coach, Venables came out with a definitive second statement, saying Gundy was wrong and his resignation was the right choice.
Days later, Venables spent most of a 30-minute media session laying out how the situation affected the program. He said the team had a three-hour meeting the day before Gundy stepped down, and the transparency and vulnerability displayed could make the ninth-ranked Sooners a more united group heading into their Sept. 3 season opener against UTEP.
“We talked about Murphy’s Law one time,” Venables said. “We talked about it, so here it is. And this won’t be the last time there’s a crisis and issues you got to deal with head on. Nobody asked for this issue to happen, but we respond. Ultimately, we know it’s going to help determine how we’re defined.”
Venables’ approach has been shaped, in part, by some of the top coaches in the game over the last generation, including Dabo Swinney at Clemson, of course, but also Bill Snyder of Kansas State and the Sooners’ Bob Stoops, who both are members of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Snyder, now 82, was the coach when Venables played linebacker for the Wildcats in 1991 and 1992. He said Venables hasn’t changed his energy level or core values since.
“On numerous occasions I can just remember, you know, his intensity would rise to an extreme level,” Snyder said. “Not a bad level, but just, he’d really get emotional about some things to try to make (his teammates) better, and he got people’s attention and accomplished what his emotions intended to do. And it was virtually to make people better and get everybody to do things the right way and to get himself to do things the right way.”
Snyder said it was clear then that Venables was special beyond his game performance.
“I think as a player, he replicated his personality on the field,” Snyder said. “He was an extremely hard worker. He was very committed. He was very intense about what he did. I mean, all of this — his personal life and his football life — are very much, very much the same. You know, he is who he is.”
Venables helped Kansas State rise to become a national power in the 1990s. He was a graduate assistant there for three seasons, then Snyder hired him as Kansas State’s linebackers coach. Said Venables: “I couldn’t be happier for that opportunity. I made $33,000 plus some change, and I was head-over-heels excited.”
Stoops was Kansas State’s co-defensive coordinator while Venables was a graduate assistant. Venables moved up to linebackers coach when Stoops left to become defensive coordinator at Florida. He said it was a natural progression for Venables at the time.
“He’s an incredibly smart guy,” Stoops said. “So we weren’t changing our defense and no one really knew it any better than him, you know, as a linebacker playing for us and a GA. So it was really — I don’t want to say easy for him, but it was relatively easy.”
When Stoops got his shot as Oklahoma head coach in 1999, he took Venables to be his co-defensive coordinator. Stoops appreciated how Venables worked with Mike Stoops, the other co-defensive coordinator. They helped the Sooners win the national title in 2000.
“I don’t ever recall an argument or a disagreement,” Bob Stoops, Mike’s brother, said. “They’d hash things out together, and they were really good. That speaks to Brent’s humility, and Mike’s. They were willing to not worry about who gets the credit here and team together. And they did a great job.”
Venables left Oklahoma to become defensive coordinator at Clemson before the 2012 season and eventually helped the Tigers win two national titles. Oklahoma approached him after Lincoln Riley stunned the program and left to become head coach at Southern California.
“He’s always invested himself in the program that he is in,” Snyder said. “Oklahoma went to him. He didn’t go to them. And you don’t see him out trying to find jobs or interviewing for jobs all the time. He was patient and he was committed to every program that he was in when he was there. And that’s pretty significant.”
Swinney was happy for Venables.
“Brent — honestly if it wasn’t the Oklahoma job, he’d still be at Clemson,” Swinney said in February. “I’m thrilled. I thought there was a couple jobs he probably should have taken, but he just didn’t have peace about it. I mean, great jobs.”
The fact that Venables took his time in becoming a head coach and learned from the greats might explain why he seemed only slightly shaken by the Gundy situation. Bob Stoops said he wasn’t nearly as confident in his early days at Oklahoma.
“He’s incredibly comfortable from day one in this position because he’s been with three Hall of Fame coaches,” Bob Stoops said. “The guy knows what works and what doesn’t. And he’s got great experience for this job. The fact that he’s waited so long gives him a lot – I think just more experience to handle all that that comes with the job.”