If the old saying is true that “you get what you pay for,” then Clemson’s Brent Venables, preparing for his sixth season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, is worth every penny.
Even if all those pennies add up to a tidy $1.7 million a year – which, in fact, makes Venables only the second-highest paid assistant coach in college football.
Excessive, you say? Ask Clemson’s rabid fan base how much that 2016 national championship was worth.
It’s nearly time for the Tigers to begin defense (literally) of that crown, won over perennial champion Alabama in last season’s title game in Tampa. And Venables, who is best known (besides his paycheck) for his sideline intensity, was already in midseason form, talking points-wise, during Clemson’s recent media golf outing.
Is this the season Venables’ side of the ball has to carry a Tigers offense missing such weapons as All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson, receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, tailback Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett? Some might think that only fair after last season, when the offense piled up huge numbers.
Venables doesn’t buy that.
“It’s not like coach (Dabo) Swinney said (last season), ‘I know y’all might give up 35 a game, but don’t worry, we got your back,’ ” Venables said, words flowing in a torrent. “That talk never happened, so I don’t know why it would happen the other way now.”
Yes, Clemson entered the 2016 season having lost seven defensive players to the NFL from its 14-1 season in 2015. But Venables and staff hardly took the year off. One might recall a 31-0 shutout of Ohio State in the College Football Playoffs’ first round (Fiesta Bowl). Or that in the Tigers’ 35-31 decision vs. the Crimson Tide, that defense limited ’Bama to 16 first downs (vs. Clemson’s 31), allowed two third-down conversions in 15 tries and won the time-of-possession battle by more than nine minutes.
More from Venables’ files: “We defended more possessions (208) than anyone in college football,” he said. “But we were second in the nation in three-and-outs, so we got off the field quickly. So, either our offense scored quickly, or they punted. So we helped ourselves by getting off the field quickly.”
Then, the kicker: “That doesn’t mean we will do that this year. Every season, you have to start over (the Tigers sent 11 defenders to the NFL the past two years). Our job is to get (players) to focus on the right things. Players have got to bring that desperation” – that Venables-like intensity – “and I’ve got to bring my ‘A’ game every day, too.”
No one thinks that won’t happen, especially with two new faces on the defensive staff: Todd Bates, who replaces defensive line coaches Dan Brooks (retired) and Marion Hobby (NFL), and Mickey Conn, who’ll coach safeties. The constant for the Clemson defense is Venables, who coaches linebackers in addition to the entire unit.
And that’s a comforting thought for Swinney, entering his ninth full season as head coach. Swinney’s three seasons before Venables, Clemson was 25-16, ending with a humiliating 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. Since his arrival, the Tigers are 60-8.
Having Venables to run the defense “is like having Deshaun Watson on your team,” Swinney said. “He’s a seasoned veteran (who) has a great perspective on the big picture. He and I are in sync in every way. He does a great job with his staff and the players on that side of the ball. … That makes your job a whole lot easier.”
It’s been that way since Venables took over for the 2012 season. Asked whether he was the missing piece for Clemson’s success, he demurs: “Ah, I don’t know. I think a lot of things came together at the right time. I think the timing was a good thing for me, too. I benefitted more than Clemson.”
Flash back to that Orange Bowl loss, and the departure of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, whose bend-but-don’t-break coaching style had lost Swinney’s confidence. A coach whose trademark slogan is “all in” wanted something … well, intense.
Talk about timing. Venables had just completed his 13th season at Oklahoma; he’d had chances to move on, even for head coaching jobs, but always turned them down. It’s the same mentality he carries now at Clemson: “I just want to be great at what I’m doing, and I’m appreciative of where I’m at.”
But when OU coach Bob Stoops brought in his brother Mike as co-defensive coordinator, Venables (and, significantly, his wife, Julie) believed it was finally time for a change. Venables was admittedly taken with what he’d seen of Clemson and Swinney.
“You always looked at Clemson like, ‘Man, they should be … they’ve got really good players, and knowing people who’d been here, who talked about the potential,” he said. “When I watched how they played and (Swinney’s) relationship with the players …
“(At Oklahoma) I got caught up in the ‘win at all costs’ mindset, (where) nothing is ever going to be good enough. It was an opportunity for a fresh start, to build something. And after visiting – for hours – with coach Swinney, it was easy to be a believer.”
And, since, to carve out his own legacy, especially the past two seasons that each ended in the national title game. Defensive letdowns (notably in coverage of Alabama’s tight end) that cost Clemson that 2015 game weren’t forgotten; this year, the Tigers’ defense stiffened in the fourth quarter, while Clemson’s offense wore down the Bama defense late.
Bates, Venables’ new DL coach (and a former Alabama defensive lineman), says the Tigers’ defensive ferocity is a direct result of its coach. “He’s the most intense man I’ve ever been around,” Bates said. “I think it’s contagious, in a good way. He really forces you to have your mind right when you come here, inspires you to give your best effort every day.
“One thing (Alabama) coaches hammered into me was, you’ve got to raise your intensity to a level (opponents) can’t reach, and I think (Venables) lives that, walks and breathes that. Players need a model of consistency, and he gives them that.”
Intensity? Who hasn’t watched Venables during games in his trademark neon-yellow cap, a graduate assistant (the “pullback” coach) tasked with regularly yanking him away from the field to avoid a penalty? Asked whether his coordinator is responsible for NCAA proposals to more strictly enforce sideline decorum, Swinney laughed. “I don’t know about that,” he said, “but he probably made the (video) cut-ups, for sure.”
So, back to the matter of money and value. Venables was earning $1.4 million a year ago, before a raise took him to his current salary; now, $300,000 more. Is he worth that?
At a time when a dozen Division I assistants make $1 million or more, why not? Consider, too, that the one assistant earning more than Venables, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda ($1.8 million), this season will be breaking in a new head coach, Ed Orgeron, after the Bayou Bengals fired Les Miles.
Swinney also is confident Venables isn’t likely to be checking head coaching jobs after this season. If he were, there was an obvious recent opening when his old boss, Bob Stoops, abruptly retired. Asked if pursuing the Oklahoma job ever crossed his mind, Venables laughed.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “You want to follow Bob Stoops, the all-time winningest coach ever (at Oklahoma)? Ask (former OU coach) Gary Gibbs how that worked out, following Barry Switzer.
“I’m not naïve. You can’t follow a legend.”
Instead, at Clemson, Venables might become one … by doing just what he’s doing now.
Highest paid coaches
A look at the 20 highest paid coaches in South Carolina:
1. Dabo Swinney
Clemson head football coach
2. Will Muschamp
USC head football coach
3. Frank Martin
USC men’s basketball coach
4. Brad Brownell
Clemson men’s basketball coach
5. Brent Venables
Clemson defensive coordinator
6. Dawn Staley
USC women’s basketball coach
T-7. Tony Elliott
Clemson co-offensive coordinator
T-7. Jeff Scott
Clemson co-offensive coordinator
9. Travaris Robinson
USC defensive coordinator
10. Kurt Roper
USC offensive coordinator
11. Mark Kingston
USC baseball coach
12. Robbie Caldwell
Clemson offensive line coach
T-13. Lance Thompson
USC defensive line coach
T-13. Eric Wolford
USC offensive line coach
15. Danny Pearman
Clemson tight ends coach
T-16. Bryan McClendon
USC wide receivers coach
T-16. Joey Batson
Clemson strength/conditioning coach
18. Brandon Streeter
Clemson quarterbacks coach
19. Mike Reed
Clemson defensive backs coach
T-20. Jeff Dillman
USC strength/conditioning coach
T-20. Gary Gilmore
Coastal Carolina baseball coach
* Includes bonuses for winning national championships or making it to the Final Four