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Dabo, vegan sausage and the decade at Clemson that changed OU coach Brent Venables

Ten highly successful years at Clemson alongside Dabo Swinney altered Brent Venables. Now back in Norman, he's working to channel it all into the program he's building at OU.

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Oklahoma (USE AS RIGHT PHOTO)

Brent Venables’ Saturday head coaching debut comes in the wake of the 10 most prolific seasons of his professional career.

NORMAN — It’s a Saturday afternoon in the middle of training camp and, on his drive home from Oklahoma’s football facility, Brent Venables is talking about sausage.

Specifically, the Sooners’ first-year head coach is laying out the merits of vegan sausage. The brown, meatless slabs are one of Venables’ breakfast go-tos — morning fuel for the 51-year-old who nine months ago made the “no-brainer” decision to return to Norman and take over the program he refers to as a “multibillion-dollar corporation.”

Sitting behind the wheel, the brand name for these particular sausages escapes Venables — “something farms, I think,” he says. But he can tell you they are high in protein, low in cholesterol and extravagantly flavorless. Even Venables’ very best sell is a flailing endorsement.

“You gotta dress ’em up,” he says. “All the condiments. Doesn’t matter. Just dress ’em up.”

“They’re terrible,” Tyler, his younger son, explained a few days earlier. “But in my dad’s fridge in Norman right now I bet he has 10 boxes of them. He’ll throw like 11 of those sausages in the microwave every morning and just cook them until they boil.”

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Speaking by phone some 980 or so miles away from Oklahoma Memorial Stadium last month, Tyler had those sausages on his mind for reasons other than their protein contents or distinct nastiness.

A junior at Clemson who will play free safety in the Tigers’ secondary this fall, Tyler Venables lived his pre-teen and high school years surrounded by the football program on the campus in upstate South Carolina. He was born in Norman, but Tyler grew up at Clemson after his father left OU to team up with Dabo Swinney in January 2012.

In those years, just as he does now, Swinney encouraged his assistants to keep away from the team facility on Sunday mornings in the fall. Stay home, he would tell them. Spend time with your family. Go to church, if you’d like. Last night’s game film can wait till the afternoon.

On those Sundays, Tyler recalls his dad giving an early wake-up to him, his older brother Jake and his sisters, Laney and Addiey. The kids could always count on breakfast to be waiting on the table. Often, it consisted of scrambled eggs and vegan sausage.

It’s one of Tyler’s lasting memories from a transformational decade in his father’s life and career.

“When he was here at Clemson, he became a lot more intentional with the moments he got with his family,” Tyler says. “Seeing what we were doing. Ask us what we wanted to do. He just kind of embraced every opportunity he would get. And, you know, that just meant a lot.”

Brent at Clemson (MIDDLE PHOTO)

While at Clemson with Dabo Swinney, Brent Venables was a part of four national title games.

Decade of change

Venables’ head coaching debut — at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against UTEP on Owen Field, exactly 279 days after USC named Lincoln Riley its next head football coach — and his homecoming to deliver the Sooners into a new era arrives in the wake of the 10 most prolific seasons of his professional career.

Alongside Swinney, Venables enjoyed a decade of success at Clemson: 121 wins to 17 losses. Six ACC titles. Four national championship game appearances. Two national titles. Broyles Award honors in 2016. Status as one of — if not the — top assistant coaches in the nation.

But Clemson is also where Venables developed a fierce personal connection with Swinney. It’s the place he opened up about his upbringing at 703 Marvin Ave. in Salina, Kansas, and came to grips with the childhood he once felt ashamed of. It’s the job that gave him one of the greatest gifts he says he has ever received: the opportunity to coach both of his sons at the college level.

And Clemson is where Venables became intentional about the little moments, like the Sunday morning breakfasts with the kids. As he lays the foundation and sets the culture of his new program at OU, in the biggest job he’s ever had, Venables remains tethered to those moments and the windows away from football.

In June, Venables, his wife, Julie, and the four kids traveled to Turks and Caicos for the first vacation of his head coaching tenure.

“I was definitely present in the moment and felt normal for a few weeks,” Venables said during an exclusive 35-minute, one-on-one interview with the Tulsa World, two weeks away from the Sept. 3 season opener. “I say normal ... there’s a lot we’re trying to build here.”

Brent Venables -- early years at OU (GOES ON THE LEFT)

Brian Jackson and Gerald McCoy (right) celebrate with defensive coordinator Brent Venables (center) after the Sooners shut out Tulsa in 2009. Venables’ first tenure at OU lasted from 1999 to 2011.

Leap of faith

There’s plenty for the mind to return to in Venables’ final year as defensive coordinator at OU in 2011. It began with loss.

OU linebacker Austin Box died that May after a combination of painkillers overwhelmed his lungs. Days later, Venables’ oldest brother, Kirk, passed away. Venables flew to the funeral on country singer Toby Keith’s jet.

The fall exposed holes in Venables’ defense. On Oct. 22, Texas Tech dropped 572 yards and 41 points and handed the Sooners their first loss of the year. The next month, the same unit allowed 616 yards total in a defeat to Baylor and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III before a 44-10 beatdown from Oklahoma State.

There was the brief revival of his coordinating partnership with Mike Stoops, a development Venables still contends didn’t push his move away from OU. On his way out of Norman, Venables gave an emotional radio interview on KREF and broke into tears when he ran into athletic director Joe Castiglione’s wife, Kristen, at the Oklahoma City airport.

What Dabo Swinney remembers from about the same time is his first phone call with Venables.

Former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips had let Swinney know that Venables wanted to talk to him. Swinney was already headed in another direction with his defensive coordinator opening, but he made the call and pitched Venables on Clemson anyway.

“I literally think we talked for four hours like two teenage girls,” Swinney recently told the Tulsa World in a phone interview. “The next thing you know it’s after midnight. We just connected on a lot of levels.”

The next day, Venables flew to Clemson.

“He took a leap of faith on a lot of levels,” Swinney says.

In Swinney and the blossoming powerhouse at Clemson, Venables felt a connection, too.

He and Swinney shared a commitment to details, the kind Venables learned to mine under Bill Snyder at Kansas State. The pair bonded over faith and a ferocious competitive nature. And Swinney sold Venables on a holistic football program. OU’s newly launched S.O.U.L. Mission program — focused on personal development away from the field — is based on Clemson’s PAW Journey.

Venables saw a head football coach and program geared toward family, like him.

Working under Swinney meant an emphasis on time away from football at Clemson. That often meant rounds of mini-golf, sunsets at dusk and afternoons on Lake Keowee with Venables at the wheel on the boat, kids trailing behind in a tube.

“He would be able to get back and kind of relax with us in the few moments that he would have during the season,” Tyler says. “Everything coach Swinney said, he fully soaked it in.”

While Swinney lifted the Tigers to ACC supremacy and two national championships in three years from 2016-18, he also coached a youth baseball team.

Jake and Tyler Venables, featured on the lineup cards Swinney filled out each game, each sat through his often-lengthy philosophizing after games. In the spring, Swinney would shift Clemson’s practice schedule to ensure he could make batting practice with the Orange Crush, a team that donned the Tigers’ familiar purple and orange colors.

“You aren’t going to find that hardly anywhere,” Venables says.

“Dabo is relationship driven, and so am I. He’s such a good person to the core. He makes everyone that speaks with him feel like they’ve known him forever. And he’s honest. And he’s transparent. And very genuine.

“And we had very similar upbringings,” Venables continues before pausing. “Very similar upbringings.”

Oklahoma (copy)

Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables during a fall practice in Norman.

‘Vulnerability and connection’

Bill Mosiello was drawn to the staff Bob Stoops brought to OU in 1999.

An assistant under Larry Cochell with the Sooners’ baseball program, the likes of Mike Leach, Mike Stoops and Mark Mangino fascinated him. And in short time, Mosiello and Venables were working out together almost daily, rattling off 13-mile runs and early-morning stadium stair sessions, and spending time with each other’s families.

Mosiello, now the head baseball coach at Ohio State, knew how Venables felt when he left OU after the 2011 season — “It was so crushing for him to leave Oklahoma to go to Clemson, but it was the best thing that ever could have happened.”

When Venables was introduced as OU’s head coach late last year, Mosiello left Dallas at 5 a.m. to be there for the ceremony.

“I had to see the smile on his face that special day,” he says.

But for the relationship the two forged in Norman in the late 1990s and have continued long after, Mosiello only learned the details of his friends’ childhood eight years into Venables’ tenure at Clemson, when he finally chose to tell his story to the world.

Perhaps no one understood it better than Swinney.

About the same time Venables was growing up in Salina with a mother who had a soft heart and a series of abusive partners, Swinney came up without much in Pelham, Alabama. He slept at friends’ homes in high school. At one point in college, after walking on at Alabama, Swinney shared his dorm room with his mother.

For the better part of Venables’ first 51 years, he remained guarded on the details of his upbringing. At Clemson, he found a culture with “a lot of vulnerability and connection on a very deep level.” With Swinney, who laid out his past to Venables during their first call, he learned to open up.

“He was so transparent about it, it helped me come out about it,” Venables says. “Speak openly about it. Deal with it.”

In the years at Clemson, Venables began to tell his own story.

Details about the stepdads with drinking problems and propensities for domestic abuse. Stories about the night a gun went off in the house and the time the threats from one partner became so serious his mother spent weeks in a safe house while Venables and his brother stayed with friends.

“Men’s groups and things of that nature,” he says. “Just kind of pulling back the curtain.”

In the spring of 2019, he sat down with Larry Williams, a Clemson beat writer for Tiger Illustrated. Hours of interviews turned into a four-part series. Standing at college football’s highest height, on the heels of his second national title at Clemson, Venables was finally ready to reveal it all.

“It was difficult for me to do that,” he says. “For years I thought I was supposed to be ashamed of it. But I know now that through a lot of pain you’re able to find purpose. Through a mess there’s a message. That’s what I know now.”

Venables Family

Brent Venables says this photo with his sons Tyler (left) and Jake (right) is one of his most treasured possessions. The photo was taken after Clemson’s 37-13 win over Wake Forest on Sept. 12, 2020.

‘Best gift I’ve ever had’

Somewhere, at home or in his king-sized office inside OU’s football facility, there’s a photo Venables loves.

It was shot inside the visiting locker room at Wake Forest minutes after Clemson’s 37-13 win over the Demon Deacons in the 2020 season opener. It was Tyler’s first college game. In the photo, Venables wears a purple polo and a wide smile. His arms are wrapped around his sons standing on either side of him, their faces smudged with eye black.

“Having a picture of that moment is maybe one of my most treasured possessions,” Venables says. “That picture’s worth 1,000 words.”

Growing up, their father’s long hours had been the norm for Jake and Tyler. So naturally, the years they spent playing under him at Clemson gave Venables’ sons a window into their dad they’d never had before.

“It was the only thing we knew — him being a football coach. We didn’t know any better,” says Jake Venables, now a student assistant at Clemson. “I would honestly say probably when my brother and I were here, playing for him, was probably the closest we ever were.”

All the things Jake and Tyler heard and saw at home — the ramblings about details, the passion, the intensity — made sense now. They saw how he prepared for a game and got to do it with him. They discovered their dad’s self-deprecating sense of humor on the sidelines.

“He’d crack these jokes and we’re all kind of caught off guard,” Jake says. “Like ‘wait, what?’”

For Venables, the experience offered a front-row seat to see his sons chase their dreams. He watched them grow, taught them in the film room and coached them on the field.

When Tyler had a hand in a game-winning stop against Florida State last fall, Venables was there to hug his son as he ran off the field.

“I got to be a fly on the wall watching,” Venables says. “Having the opportunity to coach my boys ... it may be the best gift I’ve ever had.”

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Brent Venables: “You just don’t say ‘We’ve got a new culture’ and then you have a new culture. That isn’t how it works.”

‘That voice has never stopped’

By the time Venables’ mind goes back again to the summer trip to Turks and Caicos, the last break he will take before diving headfirst in his debut season in charge at OU, the car is sitting in his driveway.

“That was an out-of-body experience,” he says of the June vacation.

Consider everything Venables had behind him at that point:

Seven months earlier, he jumped from Clemson to OU and took a leap after 23 years as a coordinator into the fresh terrain of life as a head coach.

Next, he assembled a coaching staff, compiled the Sooners’ 70-plus-member support staff to go with it and began laying down the foundation for a program.

He worked to hold onto OU’s most important players and watched others leave.

He got active in the transfer portal. He hopped on the recruiting trail.

He ran his first spring camp and welcomed 75,000-plus fans inside Oklahoma Memorial Stadium for the Red & White scrimmage at the end of it.

More activity in the transfer portal. More work on the recruiting trail.

Even a 6½-hour flight away from the football facility in June, Venables could only put so much distance between himself and the job.

“That voice has never stopped — that voice that’s speaking to you,” Venables says.

“You just don’t say ‘We’ve got a new culture’ and then you have a new culture. That isn’t how it works. There’s so many things that just never stop. It’s nonstop. But I love waking up every day because there’s a result.”

Still, in the sun and the sand, Venables escaped as best he could. He went on morning runs, sat on the beach and glided down water slides with his kids. One day, Venables cajoled the family onto a boat for an hours-long snorkeling excursion.

“He’s a big snorkeler,” Tyler says. “He really was able to kick his feet up and relax.”

There was some weight to this trip, too. Everyone knew what was waiting on the other side. After the trip, Jake and Tyler went back to Clemson. The rest of the family returned to Norman.

No longer do they all reside in the same orbit at Clemson. They likely won’t all be together again until 2023.

“To me, that was incredibly sad,” Venables says. “I knew I wasn’t going to see two of my children for six months. I tried to take every second of those moments I could get.”

The persistent voice is still speaking in his head, and his first season as a head football coach is on the horizon. Now, more so than ever, those moments are what Venables is hanging onto.

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