Mike Gundy, Brent Venables differ on how to solve college football chaos

Mike Gundy, Brent Venables differ on how to solve college football chaos

Gundy’s idea? Sign high school recruits and transfers to contracts. Anywhere from one to four years. But Venables still embraces the idea of relational over transactional.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 18, 2023, 3:36pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 18, 2023, 3:36pm CST

Brent Venables likes to talk about his OU football program being relational more than transactional. He uses those terms a lot.

And it makes everyone feel good. Harkens to a time gone by. Nine out of 10 college football fans will tell you the sport is headed down the wrong path, even though none of the nine would miss an autumn Saturday at the stadium or home in front of the Westinghouse.

So Venables makes us all remember a time when players cared about their letter jackets and coaches didn’t make six figures, much less eight, and only the ultimate turncoat would dare transfer.

But deep down, we all sort of know Venables is swimming upstream, right? Turning back the clock hasn’t worked since Munich’s Olympic basketball. It’s like the Campus Corner hippies were saying half a century ago. “You’re living in the paaast, maaaaaan.”

College football is becoming more and more transactional, less and less relational. So much so, Mike Gundy is ready to quit pretending.

Gundy plays realist to Venables’ idealist.

Gundy says that roster management has become impossible, with players able to leave most anytime.

“We can sit around and talk about it and complain all we want,” Gundy said. “But until we get some regulations, until we get some transparency, until we get some contracts, we’ve got issues.”

Gundy’s idea? Sign high school recruits and transfers to contracts. Anywhere from one to four years.

Others have made the same assertion, but few have been as sold on the idea as has Gundy. He’s even got the stereotypes for contract length.

Parents want to assure that their son graduates? Sign a four-year contract, “because if you sign a one-year deal or a two-year deal, and you’re not as good as what somebody thought, you’re going to get cut,” Gundy said.

Sign a five-star or one of the best players in the country? A one-year contract is in order.

“Like that kid down there at OU (quarterback Jackson Arnold), he might have signed only a one-year contract,” Gundy said. “Then if he plays and does good, they might open up the market, and those guys are going for $1-1½-2 million.”

Gundy doesn’t seem to be bemoaning player freedom or the high cost of talent acquisition these days. He’s just saying that maintaining a roster is becoming difficult or impossible.

Last week, chatting after practice, Gundy took to answering every question about the portal the same way.

“Religion, politics, portal and roster,” Gundy kept repeating. “Not touching it with a 10-foot pole.”

Gundy’s reasoning: It changes so quick, his answer could be outdated by the time it hits the Twittersphere.

Prime example: When OU held player interviews last week and asked for suggestions on who we wanted to talk to, some on the Sooner beat requested offensive lineman Cayden Green. By the time we arrived on campus three hours later, Green was in the portal.

The Cowboys were waylaid in the portal last winter. Eight starters bolted.

Gundy’s staff rallied with some incognito transfers who panned out, and OSU not only survived but thrived, with a 9-4 season and a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. But that’s cooking without a recipe. Hard to consistently produce something spiffy off the stove.

“With what the NCAA’s done” or hasn’t done, Gundy said, “how do you manage your roster? How do we know who’s on our team?

“Double transfers. Guys can come in, play, leave, leave again. So roster management’s going to be a real challenge for Oklahoma State.”

Gundy said other coaches might be better than him at dealing with the chaos. But that’s not true and he knows it.

“I think we’re doing a great job,” Gundy said of his staff’s roster building. “Todd (Bradford) and them did a great job in the portal, because we couldn’t get in a bidding war with the schools. We can’t get in a bidding war now. But there’s no certainty in what direction it might go.”

Gundy offered an example of the portal madness. He said some high-profile transfers are asking for $100,000 just to visit a campus.

That’s a game few programs can play and a game Gundy doesn’t want to.

Gundy predicts an eventual pro-style model, with 30-something schools set up very much like the National Football League.

I tend to disagree with him, because big-spending college football programs don’t have the stomach for big-time losing. They always will need the next class or two of programs to provide easy opponents to fatten up records. The Southeastern Conference plays virtually a quarter of its games against outmanned opponents. Some of this stuff is deep-seeded culture.

But either way, big-time programs already are headed to an NFL model. Coaches coach and consult on talent acquisition, but a front office negotiates their arrival, now via name, image, likeness deals or potentially straight contracts.

And Gundy doesn’t fear that day. He says it needs to happen, particularly after the recent court ruling that allowed multiple transfers without sitting out a year.

“The issue is, you don’t know what your numbers are going to be,” Gundy said. “So you don’t know who to go after and you don’t know how many of ’em, per position.

“There needs to be transparency, there needs to be a contract. That has to take place, or they’re not ever going to regulate it. As long as you can’t regulate anything, you got issues. That’s what we’ve got right now.”

Of course, universities would need to change their understanding of contracts. Schools have been bamboozled by agents who have constructed one-sided deals that leave the schools with little leverage.

Conversely, player contracts in the NFL can be squishy. Virtually no player contract is guaranteed. That’s nonsense, too.

So not even contracts are steadfast. 

Meanwhile, down in Norman, Venables says he tries not to be hypocritical. He knows the Sooners have benefited from the portal more than not. He admits roster fluidity is a real thing. He knows the Sooners will play Arizona in the Alamo Bowl with just a dozen or so scholarship players who played in the Alamo Bowl a mere two years ago.

But Venables leans back into what he most believes in. Idealism over realism.

“Just look to your values,” Venables said. “What I like about college football, what the game gives you, it teaches you to have some stick-to-itiveness. This is opposite of that in some ways.

“Things aren’t going your way, you’re free to just pack up and roll down the road. And that’s cool. Everybody has an opportunity to do that. And so I want to create a connected, healthy environment that is way beyond the X’s and O’s and tackling and catching and blocking. And that’s who I’ve been since the day I got here. I’ve lived a career that way. So I’m not going to change in that regard.”

Venables says he’ll concentrate on holistic development. Recruiting the right guys with the right stuff. Appeal to his players to take the road less traveled.

But Venables also admits the toothpaste is out of the tube. He knows college football’s calendar is broken and its talent distribution is a mess.

Contracts are the answer, says Gundy, who knows college football more than ever is mostly big business.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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