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Guerin Emig: The importance of first-time head coach Brent Venables getting this right, and the indicators he will

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Brent Venables began his Big 12 Conference Media Days appearance Thursday by declaring: “You only get one chance to be a first-time head coach and to do things right the first time.”

That’s as important a statement as it is obvious.

Venables must bullseye his first head coaching gig at Oklahoma. That way, the Sooners reestablish themselves atop the Big 12 and in the College Football Playoff race; further steady themselves following the Lincoln Riley-to-USC earthquake; and gird themselves for their looming leap to the SEC.

The signs of this happening, seven months into Venables’ job, are neon.

“If you asked me and I didn’t know anything prior to Coach Venables’ past, I’d think he had been a head coach for 10 years,” OU quarterback Dillon Gabriel said Thursday. “The way he motivates us, his energy is infectious. His obsession and passion for the game of football ...

“The way he has his culture planned out, the way he talks in meetings, the way he has everything organized ...” receiver Marvin Mims said.

“He doesn’t just hold players accountable, he holds every coach accountable,” defensive end Ethan Downs said. “He holds academics accountable. He holds the tutors, the GAs (graduate assistants), the strength staff accountable. Our chefs. Everybody. To the highest standard.”

Ever get the feeling your coach is still trying to figure this out?

“Honestly, not really,” Mims said. “I think he’s had this planned out for a couple years now.”

Several years now.

The advantage of spending six years as Bill Snyder’s assistant, 13 years as Bob Stoops’ coordinator and then 10 years as Dabo Swinney’s first officer is you benefit from the experiences. Venables has channeled all three of his mentors since rising to their ranks last Dec. 6.

He mentioned all three Thursday morning right after telling Big 12 media: “I feel very prepared for this moment.”

That was the idea when Joe Castiglione hired Venables to replace Riley. It was the expectation.

Now we have observations from players and assistants who have picked up on Venables’ head-coaching tendencies. They first surfaced last spring.

“He knows how to get us to listen,” defensive end Reggie Grimes said then.

“Out on the field, he can see it all,” Downs said. “He stands out there when we’re running through plays and he’s pointing at D-linemen, safeties, everybody out on the field, calling them out.”

Calling out coaches.

Defensive line coach Todd Bates recalled a moment where one of his tackles broke down on a play, and it was Bates, not the tackle, who heard about it.

“Hey Bates!” Venables reportedly hollered. “The DT didn’t get contain!”

OU’s staffers and players swear Venables has this all figured out. The head coach, forever leery of being humbled, isn’t so sure.

Asked Thursday to name something he has learned about the job that he didn’t know Dec. 6, Venables said: “Things don’t happen as fast as you want sometimes. To get stuff done, sometimes you gotta go through stuff. And there’s gotta be some patience, some nurturing. That’s been probably the most revealing.”

Number two on that list? Roster management.

“Forty percent of our roster is brand new. When I said ‘yes’ to the job, I wasn’t thinking one iota in that moment about the possibility of changing almost half our roster,” Venables said. “I had to learn, ‘OK, now that I have to deal with this, here’s some choices I’ve gotta make. What are my priorities? What am I looking for?’

“(Through) the transfer portal, we decided in the moment to find experience and find leaders, wherever they were coming from. We wanted to bring in that. Even if it was a little bit lesser play.”

Will those transfers help OU to a 12-win 2022 season? Maybe. Next December, we can judge the particulars of Venables’ roster management, as well as game management and crisis management, a lot more soundly.

We can judge whether he was, in fact, ready for this moment.

Now is more about tone and attitude. It is about confidence and willingness.

Venables scores high, so far, in all components.

“I need good counsel. A wise man learns from others,” he said Thursday. “I’m going to try to surround myself with as many people as I can to help me. I’m just one person. I’ve got one brain.

“If we’re going to be successful, it’s not just going to be because of me. It’s going to be because of all of us.”

That sounds as obvious as Venables’ statement about doing this right the first time. It is also as important.

It is as indicative that the first-time head coach will get this right.


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Sports Columnist

I'm the proud father of Gretchen and Holden. Devoted husband to Christy, who has been my best friend since biology class at Booker T. Washington. I covered the OU Sooners for 15 years. That was both challenging and rewarding. Now I get to write columns.

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