Oklahoma football: Do offensive coordinators make better head coaches?

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables talks with defensive back Trey Morrison (6) during the team's game against Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.2022-10-08-oklahoma-venables
Oklahoma coach Brent Venables talks with defensive back Trey Morrison (6) during the team's game against Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.2022-10-08-oklahoma-venables /

First-year Oklahoma football head coach Brent Venables is one of several new head coaches of major programs in the past couple of seasons.

More than midway through the 2022 season, the relatively new head coaches with an offensive background seem to be having more success than those whose expertise lies on the defensive side of the ball.

As an example, Lincoln Riley, the offensive mastermind who left Oklahoma for USC after last season, has the Trojans tied for 10th this season in the AP poll with a 6-1 record. Josh Heupel in his second season at Tennessee and a former OU quarterback and offensive coordinator, is a perfect 7-0 this season, No. 3 in the two major weekly polls and with a victory over Alabama.

On the other side of that coin, former defensive coordinators Venables and Marcus Freeman of Notre Dame have encountered rough sledding in their new head coaching assignments.

Many Sooner fans are not going to take kindly to me for saying this, but one of the factors that made Venables seem like such a perfect candidate to replace Riley as the next Oklahoma head coach was his stellar reputation as one of the best defensive minds and recruiters of top defensive talent in the college game.

And, yes, he was also one of Oklahoma’s own, having coached for 13 seasons as an assistant under Bob Stoops.

The giant rub against Oklahoma football under Riley and even in the latter years of the Stoops’ reign was a defense that, combined with one of college football’s most prolific, high-scoring offenses, yielded too many yards and points and failed to hold its weight in the process.

Fairly or unfairly, the expectation with Venables taking over was that he would get the Sooner’s lingering defensive struggles turned around, including an appreciable improvement in his first year on the job.

That may not have been a realistic expectation given the defensive players he inherited were not his players and it was going to take some time to get the right players to fit his system. He also is not the defensive coordinator. Venables had hired veteran defensive coach Ted Roof to handle those specific duties.

At very least, you’re expected to win at Oklahoma

Defensive improvements aside, Venables was at least expected to continue to win games at Oklahoma, despite losing a number of key players on both sides of the ball from the year before. In fact, numerous college football experts and the media shared that expectation, ranking the Sooners in the top-10 to begin the season and even as a potential national title contender.

After three straight victories to open the 2022 season, including a dazzling 49-14 blowout of Nebraska in which both the offense and defense showed out in impressive form, things were definitely tracking in the right direction for Venables and the Sooners.

The weekend following the win at Nebraska, however, a good Kansas State team came to Norman and exposed Oklahoma’s weaknesses on both offense and defense, and then came two horrific Sooner performances in 31- and 49-point losses to TCU and Texas, respectively.

All of a sudden, the wheels had come off and Oklahoma football seemingly had gone completely over the cliff.

The Sooners temporarily righted the ship in Week 7 of the season, taking a 52-42 win over Kansas to snap a three-game losing skid and gain some much-needed momentum heading into an open date last week.

This was not the way the 2022 script was supposed to play out, and especially with a defense that was supposed to start showing improvement, not performing worse and more dysfunctional than in previous seasons.

The sudden Oklahoma collapse has brought all kinds of criticism and contempt directed at Venables along with suggestions that he may be an outstanding defensive coordinator but just not suited to be a head coach, particularly at a major program like Oklahoma. Bob Stoops and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, both of whom know Venables better than anybody, believe otherwise and that it is far too early after just seven games to pass that kind of judgement on the new Oklahoma head coach.

The fact remains, however, that Oklahoma is playing uncharacteristically poorly this season. It certainly can’t be lack of talent. The Sooners still have more talent than most every other Big 12 school. New systems and a new coaching staff certainly can affect that, and more than 60 percent of the OU roster was not recruited to play for Venables or his new assistant coaches.

Most every college head coach, especially those for schools at the top level, at one time served as a coordinator, either on offense or defense. A good number of them become successful head coaches, regardless of where their expertise and experience lies.

No conclusive data favoring offensive or defensive coaches as head coaches

There is no scientific evidence that suggests whether offensive coordinators or defensive coordinators make the better college head coaches. Certainly there are successful head coaches who represent both sides of the argument. Of the last three Oklahoma head coaches to win at least 50 games — Barry Switzer, Stoops and Lincoln Riley — only Stoops was a defensive coach.

Looking at a small sample size of the top six schools in this week’s Associated Press and Coaches Poll Top-25 rankings, only two of the six (Alabama and Georgia) are headed by former defensive coordinators, the other four (Ohio State, Tennessee, Michigan and Clemson) are coached by men who built their reputations on offense.

Using the past 10 national championship teams as another example, six of the head coaches of those teams are defensive minded, while four come with an offensive background.

So there is really no definitive difference that separates one from the other in being a successful college head coach. There are success stories and failures on both sides.

There is the well-used expression that offense wins a lot of games, but it is defense that wins championships. It still requires a good defense to win a championship at any level, but more and more the college game is evolving to high-scoring spread offenses that run the ball to set up their explosive downfield passing attacks. And if you can get more defensive stops than your opponent, all the better.

So, to the media and Sooner fans that fueling the second-guessing of Venables’ hiring and hastily calling for his ouster, this may be Venables’ defense scheme, but it is not his defense. That is still coming, as soon as next season.

It may not be entirely Venables fault the way Oklahoma is performing this season, but he is the one who bears the ultimate accountability. If not him, though, you have to look at the next level down and the staff he has assembled. After all, as a head coach or a leader of any kind, you are only as good or as successful as the people with whom you surround yourself.