Clemsons Brent Venables travels far to lead his own defense, but influences are never far away
Clemson’s new defensive coordinator ready to prove himself
Name: Brent Venables
Hometown: Salina, Kansas
Family: wife, Julie, sons, Jake and Tyler, daughters, Laney and Addie
Noteable: Played linebacker under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, where he later served as an assistant. Was defensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 1999-2011.
BY TRAVIS SAWCHIK
CLEMSON — There is little evidence of Brent Venables’ past in his Memorial Stadium office.
There are a few footballs commemorating achievements at Oklahoma and Kansas State, a few inspirational books litter the shelves. Mostly the office is devoid of mementoes.
The office, his position as Clemson’s defensive coordinator, represents a new start for Venables, who spent the last decade as a top lieutenant to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
He initially turned down Dabo Swinney’s offer to become Clemson’s defensive coordinator in January. He knew he would be happy at Oklahoma. He had turned down other lateral moves. But Venables said something kept “pulling” at him toward Clemson. Venables wanted to prove something to himself. He had spent his entire career working in the shadows of Bill Snyder and Bob Stoops. And this offseason Stoops hired his brother, Mike Stoops, to be a co-defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He accepted Swinney’s offer.
Spend time with Venables and you will witness a sharp, analytical mind. He is not just product of a system. He has instant and accurate recall, critical for game day play calling. He rattles off a play from the 1997 Cotton Bowl where BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian threw a second-and-15 pass, setting up his receiver for a vicious hit by Kansas State defender Mario Smith. On the next play Venables recalls Sarkisian threw the game-winning pass.
Does he have a photographic memory?
“I don’t know,” Venables said, “Rain Man Syndrome.”
Those close to Venables, like long-time Oklahoma assistant coach Bobby Jack Wright, say he is demanding and disciplined, yet a patient teacher.
“I think in every game, every (offense) has different wrinkles. He’s very good at identifying them and communicating with players how we want to try to handle it,” Wright said. “He is able to identify the issues at hand and to get the players to understand.”
Until taking the Clemson position Venables had never left the Great Plains. He has been tasked with turning around a defense that ranked 71st in yards allowed last season. He has moved far away from his roots to be the sole author of a defense, but his influences will never be far away.
“Always a way”
Fifteen year ago, Venables was still trying to prove himself as he drove west on I-70 along the open plains of Kansas following the familiar path to Garden City Community College.
The 26-year-old linebackers coach had no cell phone so he trusted Garden City linebacker Jeff Kelly’s word that he would be at his apartment before beginning the 300-mile drive.
Kelly has just finished a monster campaign at Garden City and a middle linebacker was the missing piece at an emerging Kansas State program. Venables traveled to strengthen Kelly’s verbal commitment, one of his first major recruiting prizes. But when Venables arrived Kelly was gone. Venables learned Northeastern Oklahoma’s football staff had recruited away Kelly.
Crushed, Venables found a nearby pay phone and called Kansas State coach Bill Snyder to inform of the recruiting loss. Snyder listened to the crestfallen and apologetic Venables then said: “Are you going to give up that easily? Go back to Manhattan (Kansas), kiss your wife, and get down to Northeast Oklahoma.”
Venables made his way to Northeast Oklahoma campus. Venables had no address, no phone number. He began searching apartments near the stadium eventually finding Kelly’s car. He knocked on an apartment door. Introduced himself as a coach from Oklahoma to an unsuspecting roommate and moments later Kelly appeared at the door, stunned. Kelly re-committed to Venables that night. Kelly was an All-American at Kansas State in 1998 when the Wildcats advanced to their first Big XII title game.
The story is a reflection of Venables’ doggedness and his tenacity in recruiting, but also of the considerable influence of Snyder. Venables still can recall Snyder walking around the coaching offices at Kansas State muttering notes to a tape recorder. Snyder was demanding and attentive to the slightest details. Scheme was overrated. Precision was key.
“The foundation was from (Snyder) was worth ethic, focus to detail, organization and a never- give-up attitude,” Venables said. “(Snyder) is a tireless worker yet he’s not overly complex.
“(Snyder) says ‘There’s always a way.’”
The message resonated for Venables who grew up in Salina, Kan., knowing what it was to at times rely on food stamps and to be without power. His mother found a way, working two jobs.
There was a way to compete with his older brothers. “My brothers were tough guys they kind of toughened me up they were the closest thing to father figures I had,” Venables said.
There was a way for a poor kid with humble beginnings to climb up the Division I coach ladder.
Climbing with Stoops
Venables was a good high school player but was undersized, failing to draw interest from major programs. But as a sophomore Garden City Community College he was spotted by young Kansas State linebackers coach Bob Stoops.
Stoops said he could only offer Venables a chance to walk on but Venables was soon a scholarship player. Following his senior year, Stoops asked Venables to stay as a graduate assistant.
“I was with him daily when he was a player and a grad assistant,” Stoops said. “So I understood being around him all along that he understood the game and had a passion for the game.”
When Jim Leavitt left K-State to become the South Florida coach in 1995, Stoops pressed Snyder to hire Venables as the linebackers coach.
“(Snyder) was worried I was too young, too close to the players,” Venables said. “(Stoops) went to bat for me. Finally, Snyder gave in. He put me on in an interim basis for first six months and a $30,000 salary. When (Stoops) found out how little I was making he was like ‘I’m going to go down there right now, that ain’t right!’ I was like ‘No, no, no” I was happy.’”
Later, when Stoops left the Florida defensive coordinator position to become the head coach at Oklahoma in 1999, he hired Venables to be his co-defensive coordinator. Together they built some of the most effective defenses. Venables became defensive play-caller in 2003, and from 2008-11 Oklahoma finished in the top 10 of total defense each season when adjusting for tempo.
“(Stoops) was never worried about what other people think ever. Ever.” Venables said. “He has great inner strength. … If he gave me any advice before a game, and he did, it was ‘Let’s go after them. Never be afraid.’ So many people are afraid to expose themselves.”
He learned under Stoops you don’t have to be a tyrannical or neglect your family to be a successful college coach. Stoops would get upset he did not see his staff celebrating wins. Stoops made time to drive his kids to school. Stoops gave Venables a spring practice off to be with his ailing mother and arranged a private jet for Venables so he would be able to witness the birth of his daughter Laney then fly to meet the team at Texas A&M.
But despite Stoops’ fairness, hands-off approach and loyalty, his defensive background always created a public perception it was Stoops’ program and his defense.
Then the call from Swinney came.
Venable saw a hungry fan base at Clemson, a coach he related to in Swinney, a place where great things were done before and he is a believer that history has a way of repeating itself. He saw a place where he could make a mark.