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Bob Stoops spoiled Oklahoma football fans his second year on the job, and frightened them, too.
Not two weeks after beating Florida State for the 2000 national championship, Stoops admitted intrigue in the Cleveland Browns’ opening.
The Browns hired Butch Davis, Stoops stuck around Norman and OU fans enjoyed another 16 years of winning despite the occasional January discomfort that their head coach might eventually try the NFL.
The pattern continued when Lincoln Riley replaced Stoops in 2017. The Sooners won, their fans celebrated, then the season ended and everyone worried whether Jerry Jones might tap Riley to coach the Dallas Cowboys.
I wonder how many OU fans’ minds flashed back to Riley and Stoops during the recent NFL coaching cycle.
I know how many flashed straight to Brent Venables: the same number at peace with Oklahoma State winning the final Bedlam. This is a comforting development.
Venables just won 10 games after a 6-7 debut. That trajectory isn’t as high as his two predecessors, but it is encouraging.
OU fans demand a lot of Venables. Some no doubt wonder if he has the job figured out. They all like him, though, because of his connection to Stoops, his commitment to the program in the aftermath of Riley’s decommitment, and the fact he’s likelier to stop and greet Owen Field tourists than rush a quick “Hey.”
Those who aren’t completely sold on whether Venables can lead OU through college football’s volatility and SEC-related vulnerability want him to stick around and try. They would be well-served that he does so, the volatility such that three of the four recent College Football Playoff coaches are no longer with those programs.
Jim Harbaugh now coaches the Chargers. Amid his uncertainty over college football’s quaking landscape, Jeff Hafley just left Boston College to coordinate the Packers’ defense.
However those decisions affect the college coaching industry — keep in mind Harbaugh and Hafley had already cut their NFL teeth before the Chargers and Packers called — between the SEC, CFP and NIL, this is no time for the head man at Oklahoma to cast wandering NFL eyes.
This much about Venables his fans can rest assured: He is as likely to take a job with the Browns, Cowboys, Chargers or Packers as he is to take one at high school alma mater Salina (Kansas) South.
Venables is the most Joe College head coach OU has had since… Gosh… Who?
Riley is smart money to coach one of his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks in the NFL someday. Stoops coaches professional football right now, albeit the UFL’s Arlington Renegades.
Barry Switzer, who seemed a perfect college fit until he lost control in Norman in the late 1980s, wound up winning a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys. Bud Wilkinson wound up losing for two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.
John Blake was a Dallas assistant before taking over the Sooners. Gary Gibbs became a Dallas assistant, then a New Orleans and Kansas City one, after leaving the Sooners.
Howard Schnellenberger was the Baltimore Colts head coach years before leading OU. Chuck Fairbanks was Patriots head coach the year after leaving OU.
We can picture all of these men saying a lot of interesting things during their Sooner stays.
We can picture none of these men saying what Venables did at his pep rally/introduction at the Everest Training Center Dec. 6, 2021: “We’re going to find every means possible to serve your heart, not your talent. That’s real. That’s relational.”
We can picture none of these men saying what Venables did an hour later at his first press conference as OU head coach: “For me, my scoreboard isn’t in that stadium. It’s the lives that I impact, it’s the hearts that I reach, it’s relationships that last a lifetime. There’s nothing that will trump that. And as a head coach, that’s what I want our program to be about.”
We can picture none of these men saying what Venables did on his first National Signing Day as OU head coach in 2022:
“We need to promote and nurture and facilitate their dreams to become professional football players, to be the best of the best in college. That’s a very real thing. But we’ve also got to equip them for what’s next. The first day they step on campus is when that process takes place.
“We don’t wait until the end. We don’t wait until they fail in their journey trying to make an NFL roster and then be like, ‘OK.’ Then we’re reactive. We’ve got to be proactive in all of it, in encompassing their manhood, their growth and development as people, as husbands, as fathers, as businessmen. Our job is to equip them in every way.
“Education’s part of that. The degree is a huge part of it. But the football piece and the development is another real part of it.”
The football piece is the biggest part of the NFL. The players are already husbands, fathers and businessmen. There isn’t much promoting or nurturing dreams at that stage. They have already come true, or already been dashed.
And while it’s true that we’re seeing college football transition into a pro model with front-office support for coaches and NIL compensation and transfer portal free agency for players, rosters are still packed with young adults growing into their bodies and minds.
“There’s going to be a good number of guys in our program, being a developmental program, where we’ve just got to water the bamboo, and keep watering and don’t grow weary,” Venables said in early 2022, months before his first OU game, light years different than any previous OU head coach psychologically. “And if you continue to just do what’s right, it will pay off.”
Venables could conceivably water his bamboo at Clemson should idol Dabo Swinney ever succumb to his sport’s volatility. His alma mater Kansas State merits a courtesy mention. Anyway, OU’s isn’t the only roster packed with impressionable young adults.
The bamboo in the NFL is fully grown. It’s a thicket best navigated by men detached from relationships (Bill Belichick and the army of robotic NFL coordinators-turned-NFL head coaches) or reality (the quirky Pete Carroll or bizarre Harbaugh).
Venables is best suited to tending to his college garden. That should be of comfort at OU, where those still undecided about his long-term success must know stability counts for a lot while riding college football’s tidal waves.