Brent Venables’ spot may not be steamy hot, but it’s plenty warm

OU head coach Brent Venables yells to players during the first half of Saturday's game against Baylor at Owen Field.jenni -- cover small
OU head coach Brent Venables yells to players during the first half of Saturday's game against Baylor at Owen Field.jenni -- cover small /

Brent Venables made the point last week in his regular weekly press conference that Oklahoma’s season will be defined by how it finishes the season.

That was after the three-point loss at home to Baylor and before the Sooners’ latest give-away game at West Virginia. How you respond to adversity — as well as the pressure that comes with winning at a high level — is what ultimately determines character.

The way Oklahoma responded to the Baylor loss the week before and played at West Virginia, which had won just one conference game before Saturday, it would appear this group of Sooner players has not learned that lesson yet.

We’re 10 games into the season, with just two games remaining in the regular season, and Oklahoma is still desperately seeking an identity. Most good teams reflect the personality and teachings of the head coach. But what Venables has been saying week in and week out all season is not what we are seeing on game day.

Former NFL head coach Bill Parcells liked to say, “You are what your record says you are.” The Sooners are 5-5 overall, but they are just 2-5 in the Big 12 and in danger of losing their final two games. That would leave OU with a 2-7 finish and next to if not at the bottom of the conference standings.

I don’t need to remind anybody that a scenario like the one described in the paragraph above is totally unacceptable for a program like Oklahoma under any conditions, especially for a team that was 11-2 and 7-2 in the Big 12 just a year earlier, and with most of the same players still on the roster.

It probably isn’t saying much given how the season has gone for Venables and the Sooners, but OU needs at least one more win, not just to become bowl eligible for what would be the 24th straight season, but to avoid Venables tying John Blake and Howard Schnellenberger for the worst season for an Oklahoma head coach in his first season. Schnellenberger won just two league games in his one year on the job in 1995 before he was run out of town, and Blake matched that in his first season on the job a year later.

I still believe in Venables, as I feel most Sooner fans do. There is no question that he knows football and is an outstanding defensive coordinator, one of the very best in the game, but the jury is still out on whether he can be a good, let alone great, head coach.

Mario Cristobal, who like Venables changed schools in the offseason, going from Oregon, where he was already a head coach, to Miami, where he has struggled this season. So not everybody achieves greatness in their first season as head coach at a new school.

But it’s hard not to look at Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame and Dan Lanning, who replaced Cristobal at Oregon, both in their first seasons as college head coaches, and see the success they are achieving in their head-coaching debut.

Both Oregon and Notre Dame have a history of success just like at Oklahoma, and they are having good seasons again in 2022 regardless of the coaching change. Oregon is 8-2 and ranked 12th this week in the Associated Press poll; Notre Dame began the season a little shaky but has turned it around and is 7-3 and is the AP’s 18th ranked team this week. You obviously can’t say the same about the Sooners.

You can say that these are players not recruited by Venables and that it takes time to learn and execute new offensive and defensive systems at a high level, but we’re now 10 games into the season and we should be seeing more pronounced progress.

"“Every single week you’re trying to protect weaknesses and play to your strengths, and then sometimes it’s the lesser of two evils,” Venables said during OU’s three-game losing streak earlier in the season. “But right now, none of it is any good with what our expectations are.”"

That was four games ago, but the same holds true today as Oklahoma prepares for a Bedlam showdown with Oklahoma State and the final home game of the season. Venables’ comments in the press conference after the West Virginia game this past weekend were a reflection of that:

"“For our guys, it was just too much bad football,” Venables said. “We have to be able to make a play. It’s a game of performance and execution.“In November, it’s the players’ game, and we have to do a better job of helping them. Get them to play with better discipline and technique,” the OU head coach added. “For some reason, opponents are able to execute in those situations and we’re not.”"

As head coach, Venables naturally draws most of the fire for Oklahoma’s disappointing performance, but you also have to consider whether the coordinators he brought in are the best fits for the job, especially on the defensive side.

You know Venables has a lot of input on the defensive preparation and game plans, but it could also be that his friendship with Ted Roof, along with Venables’ expanded duties as head coach, have allowed him to give his defensive coordinator too much of a leash, and it could also be that the players don’t have the best of relationship with Roof.

Both offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and Roof have had success elsewhere, but so far that past success is not translating to Oklahoma’s on-field performance. By this point in the season, we should be seeing more consistency and progress on both sides of the ball.

We all expected Oklahoma might take a step back this season with all the turnover and chaos of the offseason, even with the popularity of having Brent Venables back on the OU sidelines. But no one really expected that it would be this much of a drop-off.

Venables has a six-year, $43.5 million guaranteed contract and is a favorite son of the program, so it’s highly unlikely that Oklahoma is going to pull the plug anytime soon. But certainly expectations will be just a high in Year 2 of the Venables era, and if we’re here at this same time a year from now saying the same things, I would imagine some heads are going to roll.

The Oklahoma football program absolutely needs to be better when it makes the official transition to the SEC.