As Oklahoma wraps up an eventful offseason and gets ready to kick things off in just a few short weeks, the hardest days could be just beginning.
On Wednesday, after head coach Brent Venables discussed the resignation of longtime assistant Cale Gundy, he also gave a few updates regarding summer camp. In efforts to build toughness and preparation for any circumstance, Venables will take his team to the OU rugby fields, adjacent to Lloyd Noble Center, for a change of scenery.
“We’re getting ready to go down to the rugby fields and I can’t wait,” Venables said. “It’s hotter down there. You’re not as insulated down there. The ground’s harder. When you fall, it feels different. The smell of the grass is different. It’s hard to get there. It’s hard to get back. Nothing’s easy. Nothing’s convenient. We’re going to go down there and grind it up.”
As the Sooners step outside of their comfort zone, the hope is that switching it up will build physicality, toughness and trust. Venables made sure to mention that things like this only work if the team buys in, and he’s been satisfied with his squad’s mentality up to this point.
“What we’re asking them to do is really, really hard,” he said. “It’s really hard. I finished with them on the practice field (and said) I’m sorry, there’s no other way for us to make this easier. These next 10 days should be the hardest 10 days of the whole season.
"Nothing compares to it. Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally it's going to be tough. We should like it. We should embrace it. Because that's when you know you're putting in the work and the things that it takes so you have a chance to have the kind of season that you want to have.”
One common theme, from both Big 12 Media Days and OU’s media day, was the shift in mindset that started in the weight room. As a team, the Sooners have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, while applying all of it to the football field. Many players mentioned that when they’re lifting in the weight room, they’re now lifting with a purpose and a plan that leads to on-field success. The players and staff are working to build strength that translates directly to the football field, not just lifting to get stronger.
“They can’t get there on their own, that’s our responsibility,” Venables explained. “They’ve got to buy into it, they’ve got to meet us, they’ve got to be engaged. That doesn’t just happen. If it did just happen, if it was that easy, how come everybody else isn’t having that kind of success consistently? It takes something different, and we’ve got a great formula for that.”
If it requires something outside-of-the-box to achieve consistent success, Venables and his new staff are willing to try whatever it takes. He operates in a unique way, and is already laying out his own blueprint in Norman. It will take time, considering the vast differences between the last coaching regime in Norman and this one, but the assistant coaches currently assembled offer a promising future.
“We’ve got a lot of coaches that have coached at a really high level and had incredible success, so getting our guys to deeply understand it and respect it and then go execute it is what it’s about,” Venables said. “That’s been fun. I love that. I love getting the best out of somebody and seeing guys play beyond their ability. I love guys to love what they do, to really love it, to be intense about it, be passionate about it, be competitive like it matters to win this next play, to do well this next play.”
So far, the buy-in has been there. Players seem to be progressing well, and the added strength has been evident early in August.
Changing the mindset in the locker room is one of the hardest things for a first-year coach to do. But by establishing relationships in the spring, and building trust throughout the offseason’s entirety, Venables and staff have a reason for initial excitement. As the team heads into what Venables thinks will be one of the hardest weeks of the season, a critical piece of the foundation will be set.
“It all starts with having a championship mindset,” Venables said. “Really just trying to get our guys to be habitual in all of those things, and very routine and structure oriented and then they have to embrace that. It’s easy to just kind of — coaches and support staff and players — just to start going through the motions and it’s just another practice. It ain’t just another practice. It’s the most important practice of the year, right here, right now.”
“Getting the guys to sit up and be on the edge of their feet, 10 toes on the ground and really, literally buy into that. Because that’s what it takes to be a championship program. To be one of those teams. Not be a top 15 team, to be one of those teams each and every year and then you recruit to that. Next thing you know, the players — it literally is player-driven. So that’s what we’re trying to build.”