‘Nobody’s expectation can exceed my own’: Brent Venables takes on the Oklahoma job at full speed
6: 45 AM ET
David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
NORMAN, Okla. — The Oklahoma Sooners are in their second week of spring practice, and the football facility is buzzing with high school football players and their families ahead of a critical recruiting weekend, but head coach Brent Venables — just three months into the job after his December hire — wants to talk about breakfast cereal.
He’s in his office, which looks like a cross between a Silicon Valley boardroom and a ski chalet, and he already has decided he doesn’t want to spend too much time here because, frankly, he isn’t a “big office kind of guy.” He wants to be in the middle of the action, and this office is designed to stand out. Away from campus, however, he has been holed up in a two-bedroom condo, waiting out the school year before his wife and two daughters join him in Norman. What he loves about the place, though, is a shelf in the kitchen where he keeps his supply — Fruity Pebbles, Trix, Cocoa Puffs and his personal favorite, Lucky Charms.
“I’ve got a few healthy brands too,” Venables insists.
In all, there are maybe eight or 10 boxes of cereal and, brother, is he stoked about it.
Maybe this is nostalgia. He is, after all, returning to his coaching roots at a place that’s always felt like home. But go deeper into Venables’ past and those cereal boxes mean something more. For a poor kid from Kansas, they were a horizon he aimed for and, now, perhaps a reminder of how far he has come.
“I remember having this vision that, when I grow up, when I get big, I’m going to have every cereal imaginable,” he says.
When Venables was 2, his father moved the family from Florida to Kansas, then promptly left. Venables said his mom was kind and loving but had awful taste in men. Four stepdads came and went during his youth along with a cadre of abusive or alcoholic boyfriends, he said. His mom was a soft touch, the kind who happily takes in every stray dog or cat in the neighborhood. She had a fondness for tragic figures, according to Venables.
“She believed in people even through all their warts and weaknesses,” he says. “She always saw the good in people, and for us, that wasn’t a very healthy environment to grow up in.”
When Venables would visit friends’ homes with shelves cluttered with brightly colored boxes featuring cartoon pirates and giggling leprechauns, he would be in awe. His family shopped at Food 4 Less. They bought Corn Flakes.
“If you wanted frosted Corn Flakes, you dumped sugar on them,” Venables says in the same intense way he says nearly everything — eyes bulging, arms waving, like he is telling a defensive tackle how to hit an A-gap. “That’s it, man. Load it up.”
Something about those unfamiliar cereal boxes ignited a passion inside Venables. They represented stability and happiness and a safe space where, as Venables says, “You didn’t hear a beer can opening before noon every day.”
Venables, now 51, still holds those days close — a reminder that success doesn’t come easily. He has coached in eight national championship games and won three, serving under legendary coaches Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops and Dabo Swinney. Venables has been the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the country. In 29 years as an assistant, he has never had a losing season, and his teams won 10 games or more 23 times.
But he knows his story could’ve gone differently. In 2011, amid Venables’ final season as an assistant at Oklahoma, his older brother, Kirk, died from a seizure resulting from years of alcohol abuse. Two brothers who grew up with the same struggles; two entirely different outcomes.
The day after his introductory news conference with Oklahoma in December, Venables was in a car, on his way to visit recruits, when he checked his phone. There were some 830 text messages from friends and family and boosters and bigwigs and coaches looking for work.
He’d only dreamed of good cereal. Now look at him.
That’s the message he wants to share now, the foundation upon which he wants to build this program.
“The purpose of my life was created through all that pain,” Venables says. “The building process, the improvement process, it’s very painful at times. But that’s where real growth happens.”
THE GREAT PLAYERS at Kansas State put in 100 percent every day, former Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder said. Well, OK, maybe 99.9 percent. Nobody can go hard on every play, every rep, every practice. Nobody does it full speed throughout every warm-up session. Nobody works that hard.
“He was at 120 percent,” Snyder said of his former linebacker. “He worked at it so hard. I mean, he warmed up aggressively. He was always going 100 mph.”
Venables began his career at Kansas’ Garden City Community College. He was an undersized linebacker who blossomed into an All-American on a few shreds of talent and sheer force of will. He transferred to Kansas State in 1991 then racked up 124 tackles as a senior. That intensity remains so deeply ingrained in Venables that it’s hard to fathom a time when he isn’t on the verge of boiling over.
“If he’s over my house and we’re having a casual drink, then yeah, he can relax,” said Bob Stoops, who recruited Venables to K-State and later hired him at Oklahoma. “But still, depending on what you’re talking about, that’ll come out. He’s ready to put his hands on your chest and rip you apart.”
Witness Venables’ sideline antics at Clemson. Head coach Dabo Swinney tabbed one of his strength coaches to work full time as a Venables wrangler on game days. Adam Smotherman, now a strength coach at Virginia, gained his share of notoriety as the “get-back coach,” because in the heat of the moment, keeping Venables on the sideline was nearly impossible.
Smotherman’s scouting report: “He’s twitchy and strong. He can create some force. I used to have to sink the hips and dig down deep in my power there to pull him back.”
At Clemson, Venables would grow tired of the shoddy work of some noodle-armed walk-on running scout team, grab the football and play QB himself. Well, not exactly “himself.” He dubbed his QB alter ego “Jimmy Greenbeans,” and his exploits became legendary. There was the time Venables got sandwiched between future NFL first-rounder D-linemen Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins, and it opened a massive gash across the bridge of his nose. He kept working as QB the rest of practice, blood gushing down his face. Or another time he threw a pass and caught his finger on a lineman’s helmet. He broke a bone, but that’s nothing new. Venables broke another finger attempting to catch a softball last year, and he recently lost a fingernail in what he casually explained as “an incident with my dry cleaning.”
Or watch Venables with a recruit. Longtime Oklahoma assistant Cale Gundy had a handful of 2024 receivers and their families out for a visit a few weeks back. The tour stopped by Venables’ office. Gundy refuses to reveal details of the sales pitch, but he said it includes all of Venables’ trademarks: passion, intensity, authenticity.
“He speaks from the heart and grabs everyone in the room,” Gundy said. “We came out, and one of the dads turned to me and said, ‘Oh my God, what we just went through in there … that was powerful.'”
Gundy, who has been an assistant at Oklahoma since 1999, said he has never been more excited about the program than he is now.
“I’ve coached with some of the best, but this stuff that Brent’s doing is on a whole other level,” Gundy said.
The word everyone uses is “infectious,” because it’s not just Venables’ palpable energy but the way he transmits it to everyone around him.
He yells, of course. Catch him after a particularly tough practice and he can sound like he swallowed sandpaper. But even in the quiet moments, when his tone is flat and considered, he’s all potential energy, teeming like a thoroughbred locked into the starting gate.
“His speeches,” said Stoops’ son Drake, a senior wideout at Oklahoma, “they’ll have you ready to run through a wall.”
It’s been almost 30 years since Venables suited up at Kansas State, and Snyder genuinely still wonders if the guy worked so hard, practiced so hard, hit so hard because he liked it or because he was terrified that, if he didn’t, the opportunity might pass him by.
IT’S THE FIRST practice of the spring, and Oklahoma senior linebacker DaShaun White is out to impress his new coach. The ball is snapped, and he attacks the line of scrimmage, meets his blocker, pushes him toward the ground and rolls over top of him before wrapping up the ball carrier in the backfield. Tackle for loss. Whaddya think, Coach?
“That was terrible,” Venables screams.
White is stunned. He made the tackle.
“You were flat,” Venables says. “Flat players suck.”
White stares back with a blank expression.
“Say it,” Venables insists.
“Say it. Flat players suck.”
White repeats the mantra.
“You line up here,” Venables says, crouched like he is going to make the play himself. “You go downhill. You hit him in the gut.”
The next day, after studying the tape, White is looking for a chance to prove something. Again, the ball is snapped. White charges downhill at his blocker, attacks his center, devours him and blows up the offensive backfield.
Venables blows the whistle and starts screaming.
“You see that?” he yells. “You see that? That’s the way you do it!”
VENABLES LANDED HIS first coaching job as a graduate assistant at Kansas State in 1993 based, in his opinion, on being in the right place at the right time. But it felt like he’d been given a key to someone else’s pantry, all those cereal boxes now within his reach.
“I found an unlocked door,” Venables said, “and I just didn’t want to be told I had to leave.”
So he worked — tirelessly, endlessly, methodically.
At the urging of Bob Stoops, then an assistant for the Wildcats, Venables was eventually promoted to linebackers coach. Stoops then hired him at Oklahoma in 1999, and the two spent 12 years together before Venables left for Clemson. At each stop, Venables burnished his reputation as one of the most detailed and prepared coaches in the country.
“Brent practices being ready for game day every day,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. “It’s a habit.”
At practice now, Venables carries a microphone, and he doesn’t hold back. After one series, a Sooners player jogs back to the sideline, and Venables gets on the mic. No one jogs. You run. Practice grinds to a halt, the player comes back, drops to the ground and starts doing pushups. And there’s Venables, doing pushups too.
Under Venables, Clemson’s defense met every morning at 5 to get the plan for Saturday’s game. The players began trickling into the team meeting room around 4: 45, barely awake, and at 5 on the dot, Venables would roar into the space, clapping and screaming, “Wake up! Y’all better wake up!”
“It’d make you almost poop your pants,” former Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said.
James Skalski, another former Tigers linebacker, remembers hearing stories from Clemson’s GAs about Venables keeping them up until all hours of the morning studying film.
“He’d fall asleep with the clicker in his hands for like five seconds,” Skalski said, “and then snap back into it, ready to go.”
Oh, and that game plan, it wasn’t just the basics. It was a dossier with every possible speck of information Venables could find on the opposition.
“You’d have the opponent’s entire roster, who their moms are, where they were born, what’s their favorite candy,” Boulware said, “along with everything from a football standpoint.”
Swinney remembers Venables’ preparation salvaging a win for the Tigers in a 2014 game against Louisville. The Cardinals had the ball at the Clemson 1-yard line, down six with less than a minute to go. Two straight runs followed, and the Tigers’ defense held firm. The Cardinals lined up for their final play, and Venables had seen it before.
“It was a play [Bobby] Petrino had run four [coaching] stops before,” Swinney said.
Venables had spent Friday night sifting through nearly two decades of Petrino’s goal-line playcalls, and it paid off. Venables signaled to his defense, and when the ball was released, tackle DeShawn Williams was in perfect position, reached up and batted away the pass.
“He’s the closest assistant I’ve ever seen to Nick Saban,” said Thad Turnipseed, who worked for Saban at Alabama and with Swinney at Clemson prior to following Venables to Oklahoma. “His love for the game, his love for coaching and that Nick Saban fire.”
IT WAS THE second week of his sophomore season in 2014, and Ben Boulware was done.
Looking back, his biggest problem was that he was too similar to his coach. He was an undersized linebacker who played with a ferocious intensity, a personality Venables knew all too well.
“He’d talk s— to me all the time,” Boulware said. “He said he was tougher on me than any other athlete he’s coached.”
Eventually, Boulware grew to love the fight. He didn’t compete against the opponent, he said. He was competing with Venables, and it drove him to become one of the most feared linebackers in the ACC and the defensive leader of Clemson’s 2016 national championship team.
But as a sophomore, Boulware hadn’t quite adapted. He’d endured a year of constant criticism, and he figured Venables owed him a little playing time. Week 1 came and Boulware barely saw the field. Now he was mad. Furious, actually. Maybe Venables sensed the anger. When practice began the following Monday, Boulware was with the 1s. Here’s your shot, kid.
“I go in for one play,” Boulware said, “and I called the wrong front.”
Venables was livid — that Saban fire on display.
“And I’m about to cry because he’s just cussing me out in front of the whole defense,” Boulware said.
Boulware seethed throughout the rest of practice, and when the linebacker huddle wrapped at the end, he marched up to Venables, tears streaming down his face, and quit.
“I’m just like, ‘Dude, I can’t take this anymore. I’m done. I hate football. I hate you,'” Boulware recalled.
He looked at his coach expecting — what? Not this.
“He just laughed,” Boulware said. “He laughed and said, ‘You’re not quitting.'”
Venables put his arm around the kid, smiled that devilish grin that makes it seem like he knows something no one else does, and told Boulware he was too damn good to walk away.
“He flipped a switch,” Boulware said. “We had this great conversation. He said, ‘It’s just business, and football ain’t rainbows and daisies. We’ve got to get stuff done.’ He was ripping me a new one for two hours, and then he’s got his arm around my back, and he’s crying with me.”
VENABLES’ LAST STINT in Norman ended 12 years ago, and his departure was brutal. He quit then reconsidered then changed his mind again. Venables bumped into Castiglione’s wife at the Oklahoma City airport on his way to start his new job, and the two ended up sharing a hug at the gate, both sobbing uncontrollably. He nearly skipped the flight. For someone who had grown up without a safe space, Norman had become home.
Still, the time was right for a change. That season was the most challenging of Venables’ career, with his defense battered in losses to Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Stoops planned to bring in his own brother, Mike Stoops, onto the staff to help coordinate the defense for 2012. Off the field too, Venables was overwhelmed by loss. Just days before his brother died in 2011, he’d lost one of his players, Austin Box, to a combination of prescription drugs and a lung infection.
The whole ecosystem felt off, Venables said.
“It became a lot about winning and getting ate up with, ‘It ain’t good enough,'” Venables said. “And I knew there was more out there.”
That’s when Venables first connected with Swinney.
Swinney also grew up poor. His father drank too much. There was so little money that, when he was in college at Alabama, his mother slept in his dorm room too. During his first phone call with Venables in 2011, Swinney shared the whole journey. They talked for more than four hours.
“I grew up embarrassed about it,” Venables said. “I was ashamed. I was scarred by it. I felt like it was my fault. Dabo was so open about it, and that helped me grow. It took this load that I didn’t even know I had.”
It was a catharsis. Somewhere along the line, the dreams of better cereal were replaced with a pressure to win at all costs, and Swinney offered Venables a lifeline back to his roots. That has framed his approach to coaching ever since.
“I’m trying to meet them where they’re at,” Venables said. “It’s just being open and honest and letting your guard down and being vulnerable.”
Venables insists on an open-door policy — so open that Turnipseed worries there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to make it work. He has asked Venables to dial back the player meetings and post-practice speeches because there’s other work to be done, but Venables isn’t budging.
Quarterback Dillon Gabriel was hours away from enrolling at UCLA, but he had second thoughts. His former offensive coordinator at UCF, Jeff Lebby, had landed the same gig at Oklahoma, and now Gabriel was hoping to join the Sooners. Still, Gabriel needed to mesh with the head coach. So at 3 a.m. — just a few hours before classes would’ve started at UCLA — Venables was on the phone with Gabriel, selling him on Oklahoma. The calls haven’t stopped since.
“He’s always checking on me,” said Gabriel, who announced in January he would be transferring to Oklahoma. “That’s something I’m not used to, and I’m usually good without it. But knowing he’s checking on me, I know he’s checking on everyone else too. Man, that’s a good feeling.”
At Venables’ direction, Oklahoma launched the S.O.U.L. Mission program — modeled after Clemson’s PAW Journey — to engage players holistically, from financial literacy classes to bowling nights. During the spring, he had tailors come to the building to ensure every player had a suit with a clean fit. Venables said he wouldn’t have taken the job if Oklahoma wasn’t interested in investing in player development away from the field too.
“So many of these young guys are going to look to me as maybe the best example they have in their life,” Venables said. “When I left, that’s what I was looking for — the father figure I didn’t have.
“So before commitment and belief and trust and being open and honest with me, they have to have a connection with me. And I let them see all of it, whatever all of it looks like. All the scars. Everything.”
IT’S EARLY NOVEMBER 2021, and it’s bedtime. Venables is in dad mode. He is saying prayers with his 12-year-old daughter, Laney, but he’s still a coach, so he also is giving her a rah-rah speech about following her heart and never letting other people limit her aspirations.
“Dream big,” he tells her.
But Laney was ready to push the old man.
“Well, Dad,” she says, “why didn’t you take the Auburn job last year?”
Venables had been a hot commodity during coaching searches for nearly a decade, but he rarely gave an opening much thought. There was a point, said Venables’ oldest son, Jake, when the family had all but given up on the idea he might one day make the leap. But every so often, a job would open, and Venables would gather the family in the living room to talk through the pros and cons. Florida State called a few years back, but that didn’t feel right. Then there was Auburn after the 2020 season. That one seemed promising. They put it to a vote. The family voted in favor of taking the gig. Venables voted against it.
“It was a majority kind of thing,” said Jake Venables, 22, “and we’re saying, ‘Wait, you’re not taking this one, either? We thought this is what you wanted.'”
Now, amid his treatise on aiming high, Laney wants answers.
Brent Venables offers some coachspeak about alignment and investment and …
“You don’t have to be scared, Dad,” she interrupts. “Chase your dreams.”
What are dreams for a poor kid from Kansas? A few boxes of cereal. And now, here he was, the highest-paid assistant coach in the country at a job he loved in a place he had no desire to leave. Venables had long since outpaced his dreams.
But maybe there was a place still worth dreaming about. They’d talked about Oklahoma from time to time, Jake said. It was never realistic.
Then, miraculously, the job did open, and there was a mountaintop Venables still believed was worth climbing.
The next step was bigger than a dream.
“That was a giant,” Venables said. “And you’ve got to chase your giants too. And even when the opportunity is right there, you’ve still got to step through the door. Sometimes, you need to kick it in.”
IT’S EARLY JULY NOW, and Venables is riding out the final days of a vacation before kicking off his first fall camp as a head coach. He’s talking about the projections around his Sooners.
“Nobody’s expectation can exceed my own,” he says. “No fan base. No history. None.”
When his vaunted defensive linemen — nicknamed the “Power Rangers” because of the rather tight-fitting Halloween costumes they occasionally wore — appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the 2018 season, Venables hated it.
“You can bet we had a bonfire,” Venables says of those magazines.
There is minimal preseason hype here in Oklahoma, though. Following last year’s 11-2 campaign, Las Vegas set the Sooners’ season win total at 9.5. Meanwhile, even the Oklahoma message boards remain obsessed with Venables’ predecessor, Lincoln Riley, who left town for USC after the 2021 season. Riley is bathing in the love of prognosticators who believe he’ll be an instant fix for a USC program that won four games last season. (Vegas’ win total for the Trojans is nine, and their national championship odds are half that of Oklahoma’s.)
This summer, another college football magazine, Athlon Sports, released its preseason All-Americans — four teams’ worth, more than 100 players — and there wasn’t a single Sooner named on offense or defense. It’s the first time that has happened in 22 years, Venables notes. It feels as if Riley took some magic formula with him to USC, along with QB Caleb Williams and two other Sooners, and Venables was allocated the leftover pieces of what used to be a championship football team.
This is why those cereal boxes still resonate. They’re a reminder, Venables says, that “there ain’t much separating you from being at the top of the mountain and down in the valley.”
Let Riley enjoy the view from the mountaintop. The valley feels like home.
“I think that’s great,” Venables says. “I think it’s appropriate. My message to the team is, yeah, that’s Life 101. You get what you earn. We don’t deserve to have success. You don’t deserve to be recognized among the best, even if you had a great year a year ago. You start over every year, and don’t ever get it twisted. I love it. Here’s where we are, boys.
“I’ve talked about having a blank canvas; well, guess what — we’ve got one.”
Now, go earn some cereal.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.