Bohls: Brent Venables sounds committed, determined to turn around struggling Oklahoma

Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables stumbled in his first season as the Sooners lost seven of their last 10 games, including a 49-0 rout by Texas. He is full of optimism, though, with 99 of the 123 players on the roster being in their first or second year at OU.
Brent Venables returned to Oklahoma as a favorite son and is committed to restoring the Sooners to prominence after 6-7 season.
Athletic director Joe Castiglione hopes to repeat magic from when he hired Bob Stoops without head coaching experience.
The return of 13 starters, including accomplished quarterback Dillon Gabriel, and 40 newcomers offer hope for a rebound season.
Oklahoma’s Brent Venables talks the way he wants his football players to play.
Direct. Blunt. Head on. Unapologetic.
Not that the Sooners' head coach didn’t make apologies for 2022. He acknowledges he did.
Quite frankly, he was embarrassed by his first year as a head coach and should have been after a tough 6-7 season in which the Sooners started strong and then lost seven of their last 10 games, including their bowl game.
It was not the start he had envisioned.
With as highly decorated a past as any defensive coordinator ever at Clemson, the rookie head coach was at the helm for OU's first losing season since John Blake’s three consecutive years without a winning record from 1996 to 1998. And he acknowledges it didn’t sit well.
No with him. Not with Sooner Nation. Or his team. Or his boss.
Not with anyone.
“We fell way below our expectations and our standards at Oklahoma,” Venables said last month at Big 12 media days. “We started the year pretty strong, and then we didn’t finish the year very well, particularly in the fourth quarters of a bunch of games. We just didn’t have any competitive juice left.”
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Not that OU has lost faith in him. Well, not all.
There are some in the Sooners' grumbling fan base who might have already given up on Venables and yearn for Tennessee’s Josh Heupel to return to Norman, which would be very unlikely for the former OU quarterback and coach, even if the job were open.
More important, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione remains firmly in Venables’ corner and will tell anyone who listens that his confidence in the coach has not been shaken. Not even a little.
“We get it. We understand the passion of the fans,” Castiglione said. “Things weren’t going like they should. They’re going to tell you what they think about that, too. I love the fact they care. We weren’t happy about it, either.”
Castiglione has reason to believe it will turn around quickly because he made the same gamble when he plucked defensive coordinator Bob Stoops off Steve Spurrier’s Florida staff in 1999, also without a lick of head coaching experience.
That turned out all right. Stoops won a national championship and 10 Big 12 titles and became the winningest coach in school history.
And here’s betting the hiring of Venables will turn out OK as well. And soon.
He’s smart. He’s committed. He brings loads of energy. He’s got that gregarious personality that attracts recruits and warms up to fans and media.
Heck, OU is so open that Venables’ coordinators are made available to the press every Monday of the season and after every game. (Texas allows interviews of its three coordinators only one day a year, in the first week of August.)
Not only that, but Venables staged a media day in January for local reporters to talk to every new Sooner, transfer or incoming freshman. And then he held another in August so they could visit with the other newcomers. That’s rare in today’s closed-door athletic landscape, although he knows it won’t define his career.
Regardless of other factors, he’s got to win on the field. And there are plenty of reasons he can.
Few head coaches know defense like Venables. Clemson churned out great defensive linemen in droves. The Tigers’ defenses were in the top 10 nationally in five of Venables’ last six years and ranked in the top three in the country in points allowed for four of the last five.
The Big 12 is watered down a bit this year after heavy losses by CFP finalist TCU and the departure of six of the top quarterbacks from the other 13 schools. OU, on the other hand, has Dillon Gabriel among 13 returning starters, and the junior lefty averaged 510 yards and 37 points in 11 games.
The schedule isn’t just friendly. It’s lovable. Some are calling it the softest schedule in school history because the Sooners will face six opponents who were not Power Five teams a year ago. On Sept. 2 they will open with the first of three games against Arkansas State, SMU and Tulsa. And they will not have to play Kansas State or Baylor.
Five of OU’s seven losses last year were one-score games, but the blowouts by Texas and TCU were profound.
“It can humble you very fast,” Iowa State’s Matt Campbell said. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
He knew enough in four winning seasons at Toledo in his first head coaching gig to land a Power Five job and post five winning records in seven Cyclones seasons.
Venables has been around great mentors such as Bill Snyder, Dabo Swinney and Stoops to pick up a heck of a lot of info.
To transform his team, Venables said he examined every facet of the program and listened more. He’s learning how to navigate the overwhelming responsibilities instead of just running a defense and also dealing with his wife Julie's recent diagnosis of breast cancer.
“I’m in Year 9 as a head coach, and the game has changed a lot the last two years,” West Virginia’s Neal Brown said. “You try to set up your day, and then everybody wants some of your time, and a lot of time you have very little control of your schedule.”
But Venables wasn’t making excuses for a Sooners team that struggled in fourth quarters and allowed 4.4 yards a carry to opponents. That was despite leading the Big 12 in interceptions and tackles for loss.
“I’ve always been one that I see the bad even when it’s good,” he said. “And so when I say it’s hard, that’s what I’m talking about. You’ve got to take the bad with the good, and it’s really sour right now. It ain’t a lot of fun.”
Losing seasons are like that.
Aside from a 3-0 start accompanied by a No. 6 national ranking and a win over rival Oklahoma State in what might have been the penultimate game of the Bedlam Series, Venables had very little fun last season. That was foreign territory for a program that has won a Big 12 title in 14 of 27 seasons — no other team has won more than the three of Texas, Kansas State and Baylor — and has posted double-digit wins in 10 of the past dozen seasons.
Losing was new to Venables, maybe because he was new to being a head coach.
It’s not always a seamless transition to go from an assistant at one of the top programs in college football to being in charge. It was for Bob Stoops, who left a job as Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida to take on a rebuilding task in Norman. He won the national championship in his second year.
That wasn’t lost on Venables, who was already well aware of it, having served as Stoops’ defensive chief for 13 years. And as Stoops did with an OU team with a transfer quarterback (Heupel) and incredible good luck with zero serious injuries to any of his 22 starters in 2000, Venables is hoping to ride the coattails of Gabriel and playmakers such as returning linebacker Danny Stutsman.
But there are no guarantees of an instant turnaround.
David McWilliams, Leon Fuller and Will Muschamp were three of the best defensive minds in the business, but they failed as head coaches. The trio combined for a 118-136 record and had 13 losing seasons in 22 years.
Muschamp might have been the smartest defensive guy these eyes have ever seen. His Texas defenses under Mack Brown were as good as it got. Opposing offenses weekly drove down the field on their first possessions while Muschamp gathered his intel and improvised defensive stops on the fly. There was none better.
Oklahoma is banking on Venables having the same run there as Stoops did. But that was before the annual carousel that has become the football landscape with NIL and the transfer portal. It’s difficult enough to navigate head coaching duties without the new, no-holds-barred system in place. That’s why Venables ushered in 17 transfers among the 40 new players in place.
Venables noted that 99 of the 123 players on his roster are in their first or second season at OU, which might not bode well for the immediate future. But OU isn’t used to losing, and neither is its second-year coach, who’s got the desire and dedication to return the Sooners to glory.
As Venables put it, “I like to win practice.”
Some games would be nice, too.

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