SAN ANTONIO – Brent Venables reflected on his two previous Alamo Bowls Wednesday, the first representing one of the most difficult times of his coaching life, the second one of the most rewarding.
The games occurred 23 years apart. Venables’ musings on each occurred almost 23 minutes apart, bookending the day-before-the-game press conference featuring Oklahoma’s and Arizona’s head coaches.
Both underscored two qualities in Venables that have been there all along, and that continue to define him in his second year leading the Sooners: his self-awareness and his care for relationships.
I asked about the night before the 1998 Alamo Bowl, when he visited Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder and made his decision to leave K-State final. Venables had accepted Bob Stoops’ offer to join him at OU a couple of weeks earlier, but Snyder still hoped he would reconsider and take over as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator.
Venables looked back on his decision as “agonizing.”
“Coach Snyder, I wouldn’t be sitting in front of you had it not been for his belief in me,” he said, “and the opportunities that he gave me.”
“Got recruited to Kansas State by coach Bob Stoops as well,” Venables continued.
That relationship mattered as much as the one between Venables and Snyder. Stoops recruited Venables out of Salina (Kan.) South High School, coached him at K-State and then went to bat for him to join Snyder’s staff as a graduate assistant.
No way does Venables entertain Stoops’ 25–year–old offer without that relationship.
No way does Venables accept the offer without some striking self-awareness.
“When that moment came to either stay at Kansas State or move forward, I knew I needed to get out of the nest and learn to fly,” he reflected. “I needed to have another lineage, if you will, to the coaching tree, another place to go and learn and grow.
“At that time I didn’t feel like I was ready (take on) all the responsibilities I was offered at Kansas State.”
Venables was finishing his third season as K-State’s linebackers coach. He was a rising-star assistant, but also just 28. Now he was being asked to replace Mike Stoops, off to join his brother at OU, as Snyder’s defensive coordinator.
“I had great self-awareness,” Venables said. “I wanted to continue to develop and learn as a coach. You promote that to your players all the time. It’s not an overly popular thing sometimes. For me as a young person, I did have that wisdom.”
The overly popular thing the night before the ‘98 Alamo Bowl would have been for Venables to, as his players would say now, get that bag. To take the promotion and spotlight and salary and deal with figuring out the job after accepting it.
The convenient thing would have been to stay with Snyder, a surer bet as a head coach with a program in a much better place.
Venables chose Stoops and the Sooners instead.
“Certainly that was a moment that was incredibly difficult,” he said, “but one that I’ve been blessed (for) ever since.”
That crystallized over Venables’ 13 seasons as Stoops’ defensive lieutenant, and then again in December of 2021 when Venables accepted a bigger OU offer.
He had been the Sooners’ head coach for 24 days the night OU beat Oregon at the 2021 Alamo Bowl. He could barely contain his glee watching from the sideline as Stoops, still acting head coach in the wake of Lincoln Riley’s departure, won one more.
He couldn’t contain his glee when Stoops passed his coaching visor to Venables during the postgame celebration.
“A very cool moment for me,” Venables said at the outset of Wednesday’s press conference. “As I’ve said before, Coach Stoops recruited me. I was 17 years old. That’s one of the many messages we promote to our players, that your relationships are the real achievements in your life. Opportunity, the pathways that are going to come from those relationships.”
Venables had one with athletic director Joe Castiglione his first 13 seasons at OU. That resonated deeply when Castiglione sought Riley’s replacement.
So did Venables’ signature self-awareness.
He could have been a head coach at some point along those 13 seasons as OU’s defensive coordinator. He could have been one at any point along his 10 seasons as Clemson’s.
Instead, he had the sense to wait until he knew the time was right, not think it was, even if that risked being stuck with a scarlet A in his profession, for career assistant.
“We had dinner together the other night,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch teased of his press conference comrade Wednesday. “I said, ‘How many of these head coaches jobs did you turn down?’”
All that matters is the one he didn’t turn down two years ago.
We’ll see what Venables does from here with the Sooners, starting Thursday night in his latest Alamo Bowl appearance.
We know what Venables will be about regardless, a self-awareness that marks his coaching journey and relationships so pivotal along that way.
His two previous games here made that clear.