Brent Venables is headed back to Norman.
After leaving the University of Oklahoma to become Clemson’s defensive coordinator almost 10 years ago, he’s returning to the Sooners program to be the head coach, the program announced on Sunday night.
Clemson will be looking to hire a new defensive coordinator for the first time since Venables replaced Kevin Steele after the 2011 season. Venables in July received a contract extension from Clemson through 2026 for $2.5 million, making him the highest-paid assistant coach in the country.
His buyout is 25% of his contract, or $625,000. The Salina, Kansas native does have a stipulation, however, that gives him an out “for the purpose of accepting employment as the Head Coach of another football program, including but not limited to a collegiate or professional team,” per his term sheet. As a result of becoming the Sooners’ head coach, he won’t have to pay Clemson.
Venables, 50, replaces Lincoln Riley, who left the Sooners last weekend after five seasons to take the head coaching position at the University of Southern California.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, asked earlier Sunday about Venables possibly leaving for Oklahoma, declined to go into any details.
“Definitely not something we’re going to talk about right now,” he said in a press conference discussing Clemson playing in the Cheez-it Bowl. “This is about our team. It’s about this opportunity and this matchup, all those types of things. If there’s something to be talked about there, we’ll discuss that at the appropriate time.”
On Sunday, Low reported that Venables’ top choice for an offensive coordinator at OU is Jeff Lebby, who current occupies the same position at Ole Miss while also serving as the quarterbacks coach. Lebby, who is the son-in-law of former Baylor head coach Art Briles and coached the Bears’ running backs for five years under Briles, signed with the Sooners as a player, but an injury ended his collegiate career early. Instead, he became a student assistant coach with the program and graduated in 2007.
Venables has two sons listed on Clemson’s football roster: Tyler, who is a sophomore safety, and Jake, a redshirt junior linebacker who will forego his final two years of eligibility after struggling with injuries this season.
Brent Venables coaching history
Following his playing days at Garden City Community College (Kan.) and Kansas State, Venables was a graduate assistant under Wildcats then-head coach Bill Snyder (1993-95). The Kansas native then went to Oklahoma in 1999 to serve as the linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator until 2003 when he was named the lone defensive coordinator after Mike Stoops left for Arizona. The two combined efforts to lead a defense that only gave up more than 20 points three times for an average of 14.9 points allowed en route to a 13-0 record and national championship in 2000.
In 2006, Venables was named a Broyles Award finalist, the honor given to the best assistant college football coach, after orchestrating an Oklahoma defensive group that led the Big 12 Conference in scoring defense and total defense.
Toward the end of his time in Norman, there was a perceived downturn in the Sooners’ defense, which brought about some unrest from fans. In 2011, Sooners head coach Bob Stoops brought back his brother, Mike, to be the co-defensive coordinator again. That’s when Venables made the tough decision to leave and take the same position under Swinney at Clemson.
It didn’t take long for Venables to repeat his success at Clemson, becoming a Broyles Award finalist again in 2015 after his defense finished fourth nationally in third-down conversion percentage (27.7) and in sacks per game (3.2) and fifth in tackles for loss per game (8.4). Two years before that, the Tigers’ defense led the nation in tackles for loss (122) and Venables was one of Rivals’ top-25 recruiters and one of 247Sports’ top-50 recruiters in the nation.
Venables finally won the Broyles Award in 2016 following a season where the defensive unit set a school record of 49 quarterback sacks, which was replaced by the 2018 national championship defense’s record of 54 sacks. That group also had five first- or second-team All-Americans, including two consensus selections in Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins. Both were first-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft.
During his time at Clemson, Venables won two more national championships with a 6-0 record in ACC title contests. As a full-time assistant coach, he’s never had a losing season over 25 years with 29 bowl games and 21 seasons with 10 or more wins.
This year, Venables’ side of the ball is second in the country in red zone defense behind Georgia and ninth in total defense. The Tigers ended the regular season first in the ACC in points allowed per game (15.0) as well.
Riley was an internal hire at Oklahoma, getting promoted from being the offensive coordinator to the head coach after Bob Stoops, now the interim coach, retired on June 7, 2017. During that time, the Sooners went 55-10 with four Big 12 championships and three College Football Playoff appearances.
Upon Riley’s departure for Southern Cal, it was the first time since 1999, when Stoops was hired, that Oklahoma will have to conduct a true coaching search. Venables’ return, however, keeps the streak of Sooner head coaches with ties to the program alive.