Brent Venables embraces challenges, opportunities for OU to get even better in SEC


When Oklahoma's Brent Venables attended the Southeastern Conference spring meetings a couple of weeks ago as head coach of one of the new kids on the block, he found the integration a lot more familiar than he might have imagined.

After over a century as a member of the Big 12 and all of its previous iterations, the Oklahoma Sooners are moving on to become a member of what is widely considered the big boys' league, where the talent is more pervasive and the point of attack much more physical than from where they are coming.

Something OU might have going for them in the transition, aside from its reputation and historic resume as one of college football's elite programs, is Venables' decade-long stint as defensive coordinator at Clemson. He had plenty of showdowns with SEC teams in that role and is intimately familiar with what it takes to compete and win at the SEC level, both on the field and as well as on the recruiting trail.

Venables joined OU athletic director Joe Castiglione and basketball coached Porter Moser and Jennie Barancyzk in Destin, Florida. Oklahoma doesn't officially become a member of the SEC until July 1, but at this point that is merely a formality. When Venables gathered with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and the 15 other SEC head coaches, he found several familiar faces with OU connections.

In the meetings, the coaches are assembled in alphabetical order by school. That placed Oklahoma next to South Carolina, coached by former Oklahoma assistant Shane Beamer. Four of the SEC head coaches -- Tennessee's Josh Heupel, first-year Ole Miss head coach Jeff Lebby, Beamer and Venables -- have Oklahoma football connections.

Heupel was the starting quarterback at OU in 1999 and on the 2000 national championship team and later an assistant coach while Venables was there. And Lebby, an Oklahoma alum, was hired by Venables and served as offensive coordinator of the Sooners the past two seasons.

Another familiar acquaintance in the room was Mark Stoops of Kentucky, Stoops, of course, is the brother of Bob Stoops, who led the Sooners for 18 seasons and is the winningest head coach in Oklahoma football history. Venables was hired by Bob Stoops and served on the OU staff for 13 seasons.

Venables was asked what it was like attending his first SEC all-conference meeting. "I listen a lot," he said to reports in attendance at the meeting. "It's an exciting time. It's an opportunity to learn, to grow and get better.

"It's been, you know, kind of the gold standard of college football for some time.""

Brent Venables on the SEC

"Greg Sankey, all the excellent football coaches and players...I'm trying to learn," he said.

Venables knows that to be successful in the SEC you have to be able to close out and win close games.

"It's just the competitiveness of the league, the parity, a lot of games are decided in the fourth quarter," he said. "(One team) may have a shiny record, but they might have to fight their tails off to win. We look at all the efficiency areas that are going to decide those games, and there's a very small margin for error."