FORT LAUDERDALE — In the summer of 1992, Kansas State football players Brent Venables and Kirby Hocutt drove together to work out at the Wildcats' football facility every day. Whenever Van Halen's hit song, "Right Now," came on the radio in Hocutt's beat-up old Nissan, Venables would insist Hocutt pull over and crank up the volume. They would exit the car, and with Sammy Hagar squealing—"Workin' so hard, to make it easier, whoa/Got to turn, c'mon turn this thing around/Right now, hey"—they would do an impromptu set of linebacker footwork drills on the side of the road.
"We could be on a regular street or the highway, but we'd always get out and get a little extra work in," says Hocutt, now the athletic director at Texas Tech. "I promise you if he heard that song today, he'd revert right back to those times."
The song offers a fitting anthem to Venables's career as one of college football's most decorated assistants, one defined by his intensity in the moment. Trace Venables's path from being an overachieving walk-on at Kansas State to serving as a national championship-winning co-coordinator at Oklahoma to becoming the $1.4 million architect of Clemson's defense, and there's an obvious theme. In college, he practiced so hard he would dunk his head in a bucket of water to slow down his heart rate. As a coach, he chomps on three different kinds of gum every day in practice as an outlet to "keep me from head-butting anyone." On the sideline in practice and games Venables is a vein-bulging, eye-popping paragon of coaching fire. "It's embarrassing sometimes, my facial expressions," he admits.
The intensity runs in the family, as he witnessed the birth of his fourth child via Skype in 2009 because his wife, Julie, didn't want him to return to Oklahoma from El Paso, Texas, where the Sooners were preparing for the Sun Bowl. "Growing up, I was like, 'Who misses their child's birth?' Venables says. "That's something you just don't do. There I was, I was that guy."
Venables has reluctantly emerged as a central figure in the College Football Playoff semifinal between No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Oklahoma, a collision of his former world as the Sooners coordinator under Bob Stoops and his current one as Dabo Swinney's top defensive lieutenant. As Venables matches up against the coach who recruited him to Kansas State, hired him at Oklahoma and is so close to him that Venables is practically considered the fifth Stoops brother, he'll bring with him the same roadside intensity he showed as a player.
"I know Brent thinks the world of Bob and Mike Stoops," says Colorado defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, Venables's position coach at Kansas State. "There will be a lot of motivation in the preparation, not only because they're playing for [a spot in] the national championship. The emotion of it all goes deep."
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As the sirens swirl and the police escort pulls out of the hotel driveway, Venables relaxes in the backseat of an SUV on Monday morning and reflects on his long road. In one hand, he takes a sip from a bottle of water. On the seat next to him is a half-full bottle of a red concoction of the energy drink Spark. "Double shot," Venables says with a grin.
Everything about Venables is over-caffeinated, something he links back to an urgency molded during his modest upbringing in Salina, Kan. Venables says his father left his mother soon after he was born, and for years she fended for herself by working jobs ranging from a secretary to a person hanging drywall to an employee at a chinchilla farm. "I don't even know what a chinchilla is used for, honestly," he says.
Venables's edge comes from starting life as an underdog. He was the youngest of three boys, which he jokes left him facing "social Darwinism" every day. His late mother, Nancy, did what she could to provide and eventually earned her nursing degree. But the family relied on food stamps, government cheese and the kindness of friends and neighbors to get by. Venables says he would go to stay at a friend's house when the family's electricity got shut off and didn't consider that abnormal. His mother worked two jobs most of the time, and one trait she exuded still shines through in Venables. "You never ever heard my mother complain about anything," says Ken Venables, one of Brent's brothers. "There was plenty to complain about."
Venables didn't get any major scholarship offers coming out of Salina South High, so he went to Garden City Community College, where he emerged as an All-America. Venables dreamed of playing for Kansas State and drew strong interest from a young and "hip"—Venables's word—defensive coordinator named Bob Stoops. But the Wildcats only offered Venables as a walk-on, and Garden City coach Jim Gush called Venables into his office to discuss potentially accepting an offer for a full scholarship at Louisiana Tech.
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Gush, now an assistant at Baylor, adored Venables and wanted to lay out all his options. There was nothing guaranteed at Kansas State. Venables took offense to the conversation. "What?" he snapped. "You don't think I can play there? You don't think I'm good enough?"
Venables enrolled at Kansas State in the spring of 1991, won the starting middle linebacker job and soon earned a scholarship. With Stoops as the co-coordinator and Leavitt as his position coach and co-coordinator, Venables found kindred spirits for his intensity. After Leavitt made Venables run the stadium stairs in full uniform and pads after a bad practice, they sat and talked for two hours about everything. Venables ended up embodying Bill Snyder's Kansas State ethos of overachieving. "You don't just create that intensity," Leavitt says. "You're going to be that way throughout your soul or you're not. He has a passion for life."
Venables earned honorable mention All-Big 8 honors in 1992 and made such an impression on the Kansas State staff that he was later invited to work as a graduate assistant. He worked in that position for three years until 1995, when Leavitt left to start the football program at South Florida. Mike and Bob Stoops stumped for him to get the linebackers coach job, and Snyder reluctantly agreed after making Venables wait months for an answer. He finally hired Venables on an interim basis, paying him as a graduate assistant through the spring. When Snyder offered him a contract, it was for $33,000 per year. Mike Stoops was ticked that Snyder paid him so little, and when he walked down the hallway to confront Snyder about it, Venables stopped him. "NOOOOOOO!" he recalls screaming at Mike. "You're screwing this up for me!"
With Oklahoma headed to the national title game after the 2001 season, Venables became one of the hot young names in coaching. As he approached his 31st birthday, Missouri called about interviewing him for its head coaching vacancy. Venables recalled Missouri officials preparing to travel to Norman to interview him for the job that ultimately went to Gary Pinkel. But he called and told them to stay in Columbia.
Brent and Julie Venables have moved just twice during his career, a rare run of stability in a profession defined by volatility. And much of that has to do with the attitude that Venables showed all the way back in 2001, the same one that helped lead him from food stamps in Salina to a seven-figure salary in Clemson. When Venables left Kansas State to join Stoops at Oklahoma for the 1999 season, he heard criticism, especially after Kansas State lost the 1998 Big 12 title game in double overtime to Texas A&M. It still bothers him and he promised to never replicate that feeling. "I always felt very disappointed that people associated me with looking at another job while I had a job and that affected my job," he says. "I know it didn't in my heart of hearts. I live with that still. [People saying] there was a lack of loyalty or whatever."
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Instead, Venables's career has been defined by loyalty. He stayed with Stoops from 1999 through 2012, leaving soon after Bob decided to re-hire his brother, Mike, who had been fired as Arizona's head coach. After taking a trip to Clemson with Julie, Venables decided he had to go. He clicked with Swinney, a high-energy coaching soulmate who Julie jokes will talk to her husband for hours, like a junior high couple.
But after returning to Norman and breaking the news he was leaving, Venables nearly changed his mind after talking to Stoops, athletic director Joe Castiglione and president David Boren. Friends and neighbors started dropping by and making him feel guilty. The Venables's four children—Jake (15), Tyler (13), Delaney (7), Addie (6)—had never lived anywhere else.
When Venables bumped into Castiglione's wife, Kristen, at the airport, he took it as a sign he should stay. He even left Swinney a voicemail saying he wasn't coming, which Swinney hasn't erased from his iPhone and plays occasionally to bust Venables's chops.
"I wouldn't let him change his mind, even though he tried," Julie says. "I told him, 'You have to remember how you felt when we were there in Clemson.' It was a great fit as far as career and passion. Everything coach Swinney is about is who Brent is."
Venables arrived at Clemson in 2012 to take over a defense that gave up 70 points in a blowout Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. He inherited a defense ranked No. 71 nationally (394 yards per game allowed) and transformed it into the nation's No. 1 unit last season (260.8). This year may be Venables's best work, as Clemson ranks No. 7 nationally in total defense despite losing two first-round NFL picks (defensive end Vic Beasley and linebacker Stephone Anthony), five overall defensive picks and nine former Tigers good enough to get invited to NFL camps.
The Tigers' defense made one of the season's hallmark plays in early October, stopping Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer on a potential game-tying two-point conversion to seal a 24–22 victory in a monsoon. "We had one starter returning on the offensive and defensive lines," Venables says. "To say we would be in the playoff, I would have checked into an insane asylum."
In a season in which he did arguably his best work, Venables has received little attention. Clemson officials have to drag Venables to media sessions some weeks, not because he dislikes talking, but because he would rather stay focused on the task at hand. In a business filled with self-promoters, Venables is the antithesis. Former Sooners linebacker Teddy Lehman recalls no coach caring more for his players; Venables is so locked in, he has no desire to look around.
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Venables says he turned down a chance to interview for a "good" Power Five job this year, and the last job he interviewed for was at Arkansas in 2012. Venables says he is unlikely to take a job outside a Power Five conference and he'll be particular going forward. (His $1.4 million salary certainly prices him out of a lot of jobs.) "I would never do what Bill Snyder did and take a place like Kansas State," he says. "I don't want to do that. That's torture! I don't want to live like that. I want to wake up and feel good about what I'm doing and be very confident and passionate about what I'm doing."
Julie jokes that her husband will certainly stick to his day job, as he's barred from doing household chores after over-fertilizing the lawn a few years ago and turning it into a plaid parquet of brown and green grass. Once Venables wasn't satisfied with the amount of Christmas lights on display at the house, and Julie returned home to see mismatched lights, a power strip in front of the bushes and yellow extension cords dangling. "He has no handyman ability," she says.
But for Brent's failings in around the house, she says he is a doting father who comes home from work to immediately sit and pretend to have tea with his daughters. Both his sons are rising football stars, as Jake just completed his sophomore year and already holds scholarship offers from Clemson, Texas Tech and Colorado. No surprise, he is a linebacker known for his intensity. (Jake went to camp at Oklahoma the last two years and stayed with Bob and Carol Stoops.) Tyler is a burgeoning star quarterback who led his junior high team to an undefeated season.
While most coaches lobby for head jobs, Venables doesn't let it consume him. He is adamant that he could be fulfilled as a career assistant, especially given that the passion for football at Clemson matches his own. "That goes without saying," he says of being happy as an assistant. "I got it all. There's nothing I'm missing from a career standpoint, and I think I'd be happy as heck being the linebacker coach. Just doing what I do."
As the police escort pulls into the luxury resort housing the Clemson team this weekend, Venables smiles and sums up his appreciation of being right here, right now. "I can wear my jock strap to work," he says. "Every day. I'm really lucky to have it all."