Time will tell how Brent Venables fares as a head coach, but the path to the big chair was just about impeccable. To land one of the best jobs in college football -- arguably the best -- he moved a total of three times.
Venables emerged from a difficult childhood to sign with Garden City Community College out of Salina South High School. Bill Snyder then pulled him into his developmental factory of overlooked JuCo prospects into Big 8 football assassins. Venables played linebacker for K-State in 1991-92 -- his position coach was Bob Stoops -- joined the coaching staff immediately following graduation, graduated to the linebackers job in 1996 and remained until Stoops landed the Oklahoma job following the 1998 season. So that leads us to Move No. 1. (Had Stoops not landed the OU job as Florida's defensive coordinator, Venables undoubtedly remains at Kansas State through 1999... and perhaps forever.)
Venables arrived in Norman for that '99 season and remained through 2011. He left for Clemson ahead of 2012 -- Move No. 2 -- and then returned to Norman in December, Move No. 3.
There's a famous story of Venables, so gut-wrenched in his decision to leave Oklahoma for Clemson, that he nearly turned around at the airport. Now consider the poetic bookend to that story with emotions Venables experienced at the airport in his return to Norman.
On Thursday, Venables explained why he moved so rarely in his climb up the ladder, and how it worked out for him.
The first was a stat I wasn't aware of until he uttered it.
"I've never been part of a losing season in 30 years of coaching," he said. K-State went 7-4 in Venables's junior year, then slipped to 5-6 in his senior year. The Wildcats lost to Nebraska 38-24 in Tokyo to end the year below .500. Venables then traded his jersey for a polo and K-State took off: 59-13-1 in his six seasons on staff, including an 11-1 season in 1997 and an 11-2 mark in '98. In fact, K-State was undefeated and in line to play in the first BCS title game when they lost to Texas A&M in double overtime in the Big 12 Championship; some Wildcat fans blame the loss on the distraction of Venables preparing to join Stoops in Norman.
At Oklahoma, Stoops, Venables and company went 7-5 in 1999, then won the national title in 2000. Venables left Norman with a 139-34 record, seven Big 12 titles, four BCS title game appearances, and the 2000 national title.
He then joined Clemson at rock bottom defensively -- 70 points allowed to West Virginia in the 2011 Orange Bowl -- and methodically built the Tigers into the most fearsome defense in college football, along the way going 121-13 with two national championships, six consecutive ACC championships, and six consecutive College Football Playoff berths.
So that's reason one why Venables moved so little. It's easy to stay the course when that course has you going a collective 319-60-1 with 18 AP Top 10 finishes in 29 seasons. It also means Venables never once had change forced upon him by a firing above his pay grade.
The second reason was that Venables was paid well enough to be choosy. He earned $2.5 million coordinating Clemson's defense in 2021, not as much as he'd have made had he taken any of the jobs available to him before Oklahoma came along, but more than enough to wait the OU job out.
But the other reason, intertwined with the reason above, was that Venables was extremely loyal to Bill Snyder, to Bob Stoops, and to Dabo Swinney.
"I've been with three Hall of Fame football coaches that all preached that the grass is not always greener. I was the baby of three boys in my family, and so I've learned from my older brothers' mistakes, and I've learned from many colleagues what to do and what not to do. I've just always believed if you're going to be great at something, then you've got to be great where your feet are. I have never figured out how you can be great in two places at once," he said.
I'm not a psychologist, but I wonder if a psychologist would draw a link between the lack of stability among father figures in his childhood -- Venables' father left the family when he was two, and his mother cycled through a series of abusive partners in the years that followed -- and his attachment to Snyder, Stoops and Swinney.
"For me, I've just always had this thankfulness wherever I've been. Did I always have aspirations and dreams to climb the corporate ladder? Absolutely. But I also believed most importantly that a good name is better than riches and gold," Venables said, quoting Proverbs 22:1. "I didn't want to prostitute myself, if you will, in the profession and try to take this job to have this job to have this job. I just tried to be great right where my feet are, and that boded well for me."
Armed those 319 wins and on-the-job training from three Hall of Famers, Venables takes over an Oklahoma program in transition. On the one hand, 2022 marks the 24th straight OU season coached by Bob Stoops or a Bob Stoops assistant, and its 25th straight season overseen by AD Joe Castiglione. For those reasons, Oklahoma is the only Power 5 program not to endure a losing season since the turn of the century.
Yet, 40 percent of the roster is comprised of brand new Sooners, split between a 22-man, 8th-ranked recruiting class and a program-record 15 transfers. No team lost more 2021 production than Oklahoma, but no team imported more experience than Oklahoma, either. OU's 15 transfers combined for 244 starts at their previous schools, led by quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who started 25 games in three seasons at UCF, 10 of them under former and current offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby in his true freshman season of 2019.
As Venables' .841 winning percentage as an assistant coach resets to .000, Venables will rely on the steady, deliberate path that brought him back to Norman.
"I'm going to continue to be me."