NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — New Oklahoma coach Brent Venables respects what the Sooners have accomplished in recent years, but he believes they can be even better.
Lincoln Riley compiled a 55-10 record in five seasons before leaving to become head coach at Southern California. Quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray won Heisman trophies before becoming No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft.
But Riley’s teams lost three times in the College Football Playoff semifinals and never won a national title. Venables has used spring practice to lay the foundation for a program he believes can break through.
“We’re trying to take this program from good to great,” he said. “That’s a big step. It takes a lot of intention and a lot of purpose to get that.”
Venables freely shares nuggets of wisdom that show how he plans to get there. Take the way he encourages players to embrace challenges: “I tell the players you have to grow an intimate relationship with failure to be your best,” he said. “You can’t just love it when it’s good and it’s easy and it’s comfortable. That’s not where the real growth happens. You’ve got to love all of it.”
Then, there's the example he offered while explaining how one of his more animated players could tweak his leadership skills: “I said, ‘Man, instead of calling him out, call him up,'” Venables said. “Call a man up. Try that and see if you get better results.’”
Venables has much to show for his approach — he’s been on staff for teams that have won three national titles and appeared in eight national championship games. Now, the former Clemson defensive coordinator is maintaining it as he steps forward in his first head coaching gig.
Longtime Sooners fans remember Venables’ enthusiasm from his previous run at Oklahoma, when he helped the program win the 2000 national title. He was on the staff under Bob Stoops as co-defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2003 and was defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2011.
He's still got that fire. He walks around practice with a microphone and sometimes participates in workouts. He’s all over the details — on offense, too.
“It’s just unique,” quarterback Dillon Gabriel said. “He demands a lot, but man, he loves us even harder. So whenever you have that, you can demand a lot from all the guys.”
Todd Bates, an Oklahoma defensive assistant who followed Venables from Clemson, said the intensity never wanes.
“He’s never going to ask you to do something he’s not going to do,” Bates said. “I saw that for five years at Clemson. Having the ability to be on his side of the ball and go through practice with him and see how intense that is — it’s like life or death on every play to him.”
Venables said Oklahoma is on the right track after a strong spring practice.
“It’s just a little bit more,” he said. “We talk about 212 degrees. When the boiling water happens, that’s how you move a locomotive. At 211, that thing is sitting totally still. You won’t go anywhere. It needs just one more degree, a little more care. Work a little more, love a little more, react a little more — just a little bit more. That makes a difference. If everybody has that mindset, we’ll all get where we want to go.”
He believes it all starts with the example he sets. That filters into everything, including the types of players he recruits.
“I can promise you, I’m going to be the first in line to do and not be a taker,” he said. “I’m looking for doers. So that’s what that is. I want to sell that to recruits and their families and our own players and their families. They notice that. They are human. They pay attention. And passion comes from love.”
From there, Venables hopes the players do the work to turn their potential into production.
“We talk about it all the time — doing the hard, dirty work in the dark,” Venables said. “When the stands are empty, that’s when we can separate from our opponent. There has to be real commitment, and guys have to love getting dirty. I’m hopeful that that’ll take place.”
In return for all that effort, Venables wants the crowds in Norman to share his passion. Although Oklahoma's fan base is loyal, he believes Memorial Stadium could be louder and provide a better homefield advantage.
“There’s a reason we’ve won so much here at home — one of the best home records in college football over the last 20 years,” he said. “The crowd has been a big part of that. But we’re trying to take it to another level.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: twitter.com/CliffBruntAP