Hundreds of Sooners fans who watched coach Lincoln Riley leave for Southern California last week flocked to Norman’s airport on Sunday night to cheer the arrival of Venables, Riley’s replacement.
A day later, Oklahoma introduced Venables to a throng of energized fans at the Sooners’ indoor practice facility. The Sooner Schooner was on hand, cheerleaders pumped up the crowd and the band played. There were fire machines and streamers. Athletic director Joe Castiglione even handed Venables a pair of Air Jordan shoes.
Venables then explained in detail why bells and whistles aren’t what he’s about.
“Listen, I’m a simple guy,” said Venables, a native on Salina, Kansas. “I value some things that maybe other people don’t, maybe more so. I value relationships. I value people. I value quality of life. And I value simplicity. Just because you become the head coach doesn’t mean you can’t keep things simple. You control that narrative.”
There’s no reason for him to change now — his approach clearly works. He started his coaching career as an assistant at Kansas State before things really took off. He has won three national titles and coached in eight national title games as a co-defensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 1999 to 2004 and defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2011 and at Clemson from 2012 until the present.
Now, at age 50, he’s diving into his first head coaching job. He believes he’s ready, in part, because the head coaches he has learned from — Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Dabo Swinney at Clemson — empowered him along the way.
“What they’ve been able to pour into me — I’ve always been a sponge,” he said. “I’m taking it all in. I’ve led my position group. I’ve led defenses. I’ve been in front of the team plenty. It’s something that is easy for me. It’s something that I love to do. I’m just passionate about people. I am passionate about winning. I’m passionate about winning the right way, never compromising those values.”
Venables said he had considered becoming a head coach before, most seriously last year. But because he loved his job at Clemson, he could afford to hold out for the right opportunity.
“Literally for the last 10 years, I went to work every day and I got filled up as a human being,” he said. “And that’s hard to quantify for some people. But I had perspective. I had awareness. I had appreciation. And I had a lot of fun.
“You try not to screw up happy. I learned that a long time ago. But this is a no-brainer in my opinion, for all the reasons that I said – from the leadership to the alignment to the success of this program and it’s history and location and people. All of it.”
Oklahoma’s administration said it felt blindsided by Riley’s decision to leave. Many fans considered Riley disloyal, comparing the move to NBA star Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016.
Venables made it clear he doesn’t plan to go anywhere.
“I have a career, almost 30 years, of being loyal,” he said. “Just look at my career. If I’ve been something I’ve been loyal. I haven’t been a coach that’s just jumped all over.”
Venables said when he left Oklahoma 10 years ago, he never expected to return as head coach. But he never stopped pulling for the Sooners.
“You feel like that’s a part of your fiber,” he said. “It’s not just a job, for me. It’s not just a job. You pour your life into it. You don’t just walk away and forget about it, good or bad. You try to learn from all of it. So for me, absolutely, always paying attention.”
Venables said he has spoken to star quarterback Caleb Williams and his father and met with the team on Monday morning. He’s focused on connecting with current and future players. The Sooners have seen several top prospects decommit, with some looking to follow Riley to USC.
“My number one goal is to get on the road recruiting,” he said. “Make sure that this ’22 class due to enroll here in the next few weeks is where it needs to be. And then all the while in between visits, visiting with our current players.”