Brent Venables thought he was past the “weirdness” last week until he began fielding questions about his ties to Oklahoma and the Stoops brothers.
“I said I was over all that,” Venables replied and amiably implored, “Quit bringing it up.”
The steel gaze and firm, square jaw belie a softer side, and for the next two weeks Clemson’s defensive coordinator will compartmentalize his emotions. For about three hours or more Dec. 29 Venables will manufacture enough acrimony to get through the Russell Athletic Bowl.
To paraphrase the film “Casablanca,” of all the bowl games in all the towns in the world, Venables winds up facing some of his best friends in football and the school that employed him for 13 years.
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“Definitely the last choice,” Venables said.
“I like to just take the weakest guy and dominate him. I don’t make any apologies,” he said, smiling. “I’d rather eat hot dogs and drink a Coke and let one of our (graduate assistants) call the game.”
Venables’ relationship with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops began as a player at Kansas State. When he needed a linebackers coach, Stoops campaigned for Venables. When Stoops became coach at Oklahoma, he installed his brother Mike and Venables as co-defensive coordinators.
“I’m completely and totally indebted to Bob Stoops for where I am today. I’m a reflection of the things that he’s taught me through the years,” Venables said. “He’s been there for me and my family in the best days of both my professional and personal lives, and he’s been there for me and my family in the most difficult days.
“He’ll always be like a brother to me.”
Venables and Mike Stoops were roommates for a time. “We grew into this business together.” Mike Stoops left Oklahoma for nine years to be head coach at Arizona. When he returned to his old job at OU in 2012, Clemson was coming off the embarrassing loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Dabo Swinney was looking for a new defensive coordinator, and in a matter of days Venables agreed to cut ties professionally with his “family” and join Clemson’s.
Venables admitted in a recent interview with The Daily Oklahoman he waffled as he was leaving. At the airport, he ran into the athleticS director’s wife and she became emotional. He nearly turned around in Atlanta after swapping messages with Bob Stoops. “Not because of anything other than it was scary, and you’re wondering what you’re taking your family into,” he said.
Many of the pieces were in place when Venables arrived, and with the additions from three strong recruiting classes, he has fashioned the Clemson defense into his image and worthy of comparison with some of the great groups he coached at Oklahoma.
“I like the group of guys we’ve got,” Venables said. “Whether you’re playing Oklahoma, whether you’re playing Ohio State or LSU or whoever, we’ve got a great group of players that have great leadership and are going to be very focused for this game and are going to want to play well and finish the season strong.
“Our guys have earned the status of being an elite group,” he said. “And it’s not just by doing one thing really well. We’ve defended the pass well, defended the run well. We’re great in a lot of those statistical categories that you push for.”
Clemson ranks No. 1 nationally in total defense (259.6 yards per game), yards per play (4.03), per game tackles for loss (10.2), fewest plays of 10 yards or longer (113) and first downs per game (14). Among the other metrics, Clemson is second in yards per rush (2.85), fourth in sacks (3.68 per game) and fourth in three-and-out (6.18 per game).
Venables likened the initial anxiety of facing Oklahoma to when he thought Clemson was going to play Texas A&M two years ago and Baylor last year. “For about 48 hours I thought, ‘oh, my God we’re going to have to play Johnny Manziel and that crew.’ At the time we were a little bit thin in the secondary, and it would have been a tough match up,” Venables said. “A year ago, I thought it was going to be Baylor. Of course, they broke more scoreboards than us.
“You’re facing people you care deeply for. At the end of the day, as you sit in your meeting room and you’re coaching your guys on the field, your whole goal is to beat somebody’s brains in,” he said. “From an alpha male football coach standpoint, that’s kind of, really, what you want to have happen at the end of the day, to dislike your opponent. It’s hard to dislike them, but for a few hours – trust me – I’ll find a way.”
And it would be extraordinarily out of character if he doesn’t muster what he needs to cope with his emotions.
“It’s just a game. It’s a big game, Venables said. “We want to win the game, obviously.
“But our friendships won’t be changed one bit.”