Venables chooses road less traveled (successfully)
To improve his skippering, Sooner coach taking highly counterintuitive route
Tuesday afternoon, after Brent Venables’ first in-season pre-game press conference, everybody wanted to talk about the depth chart.
Like, how is Tawee Walker, a walk-on junior, right there with Marcus Major atop the running backs list and how are Jovante Barnes and Gavin Sawchuk behind both?
Interesting, at least.
But not the showstopper.
That came early in the session thanks to a question from the great Berry Tramel.
Venables was asked how he, specifically, needed to improve and how might he do that as a defensive minded coach who must balance head coaching duties against his longtime expertise?
To his credit, Venables gave a full answer. He said he wanted to be more “efficient” and what that meant to him was both fascinating and shocking.
“To not do what I know how to do as well as I [can] do it, kind of being involved isn’t, to me, where I need to be,” he said. “I need to be completely involved defensively. Not that they need my help, but that’s what I know, that’s how I got to this position.
“I think a year ago I was certainly involved, but not to the depth like I think that I felt like I needed to be … that’s one area that I know, without question, I [can] do a good job.”
Uh, say what?
For those who thought Venables’ big problem last season was not understanding what it meant to be a head coach; that his head was too deep into defense to helm the whole ship; to tell his offensive coordinator to run clock in Bedlam’s second half; to police his own sideline; to make sure the offense and defense were in tune to one another; to be a conducting maestro rather than a coordinator in head coach’s clothing … well, guess what, he’s going the other way instead.
Say this for him though.
When it all comes crashing down, Venables will go out on his own terms.
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Unless it works.
It could always work.
But history says it’s unlikely.
Bob Stoops dove into head coaching.
He advised all, but ran none.
He was right there in the huddle during offensive timeouts and defensive timeouts, too. He was in tune with the game at large, not one unit’s fortune or lack of it.
On game day, everybody worked for him.
Barry Switzer, too.
Perhaps no head coach left particulars to assistants quite like he did, yet all he did was win three national championships and a Super Bowl.
Most of the time, he chose not to don a headset, but lived in his assistants’ ears.
The fear is Venables doesn’t know what to do if he doesn’t dive deeper into his defense. That head coaching is kind of lost on him, and rather than integrate himself into the role, he’s falling backward into his comfort zone instead.
The last Sooner coach before him, the late John Blake, to suffer a losing record suffered such a fate when he made himself his own defensive line coach.
He said he felt more involved, which cannot be a good thing when you’re also the head coach, literally responsible for everything.
If Venables is in the same place, at a loss for what to do without a unit under his charge, Oklahoma’s in real trouble.
Perhaps a positive, he did not break down exactly how being involved with the defense at optimum “depth” would manifest.
Does he mean through the week? Does he mean game days, too?
Is he merely saying he bit his tongue last season, and perhaps he has a whole new quiver of head coaching arrows he’ll be ready to shoot, too?
It’s dicey as hell.
Venables finished his answer to Tramel’s query by saying his working relationship with defensive coordinator Ted Roof wouldn’t be altered and Roof “understands what being a great teammate is all about,” which sounds like the defense remains Roof’s unit until his head coach tells him to get out of his way.
What it sounded was messy and that offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby wouldn’t be getting any real supervision for a second straight campaign, neither of which is good.
Nobody should know Venables better than Venables, but has such an approach ever been a formula for supreme success?
Stoops gave Mike Stoops and Venables the freedom to run their unit 20-plus years ago at Owen Field.
Dabo Swinney gave Venables the freedom to run his own unit at Clemson until Venables left for Norman.
Steve Spurrier won a national championship at Florida coordinating his own offense, but only because Bob Stoops was prepared to be co-head coach of the defense, and Lebby is no Bob Stoops.
Venables must walk his path.
That doesn’t make it a good one