ESPN Senior Writer
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is Oklahoma’s new head football coach, the university announced.
A deal was finalized Sunday night after OU athletic director Joe Castiglione flew to the Clemson, South Carolina, area to meet with Venables, who had emerged as the Sooners’ top target. Venables flew back with the Oklahoma contingent Sunday night and will be formally introduced Monday morning.
“This is an incredibly special opportunity,” Venables said in a statement released by Oklahoma, calling the Sooners “one of the winningest and most tradition-rich programs in college football history.”
“There’s no question we are equipped to compete at the very highest level and attract the best players from across the country. The OU logo has never been stronger.”
Venables, one of the top defensive minds in the college game, has been a major part of Clemson’s championship run under Dabo Swinney and has a long history at Oklahoma. He was on the Sooners’ staff from 1999 to 2011, as co-defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2003 and defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2011.
While at Clemson, Venables was the Broyles Award winner in 2016 as the top assistant coach in college football. He had turned down multiple head-coaching opportunities in recent years to stay at Clemson.
“This is a truly great day for Oklahoma,” Castiglione said in the school’s release. “A born leader, [Venables] helped build and sustain an exceptional culture during his 13 years here at Oklahoma and his 10 seasons at Clemson. He has a track record of establishing meaningful relationships with his players and preparing them for the next level. Brent embraces competition and the challenges that come with it, and there is no doubt in my mind he is the right man to lead OU football into its next great era.”
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Venables’ defenses at Clemson consistently ranked near the top nationally in most statistical categories. He was the highest-paid assistant coach in college football and received a contract extension prior to this season that took him to $2.5 million annually. That was after he turned down the Auburn head-coaching job a few months earlier.
Sources told ESPN that Venables plans to hire Ole Miss offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator. Lebby, a semifinalist for the Broyles Award each of the past two seasons, spent four years as a student assistant at Oklahoma after signing to play there but suffering an injury that ended his playing career. Lebby, working under Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, called the offensive plays for the Rebels, who ranked fourth nationally this season in total offense (506.7 yards per game).
Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell was another coach Oklahoma had interest in, but the timing didn’t work out for Fickell, whose Bearcats won the AAC championship game Saturday and are headed to the College Football Playoff.
Venables, 50, replaces Lincoln Riley, who left to take the USC job the day after Oklahoma’s 37-33 Bedlam loss to Oklahoma State. For the third straight time, Oklahoma went the assistant route in hiring its head coach. Riley was the Sooners’ offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops before being promoted. And Stoops was the defensive coordinator at Florida before landing the OU head job in 1999.
Stoops, who currently is serving as the Sooners’ interim coach, said Venables is “the perfect guy to get us to the next level.”
“He knows the formula to win national championships and has the toughness, the attitude and the fight that I think will elevate our program in a lot of positive ways,” Stoops said in the school’s release. “I’ve always loved his energy, excitement and passion for the game — it clearly spills over to his players. He has the absolute right experience to come in at this time and really boost our program.”
Venables will help usher in a new era in Oklahoma football, as the Sooners are set to move to the SEC, possibly as early as the 2023 season. In two games against SEC opponents this season (Georgia and South Carolina), Venables’ defense allowed a combined three points.
“Coach Venables is the perfect leader for the next exciting chapter of Oklahoma football as we look ahead to a new era of competition,” Oklahoma president Joseph Harroz Jr. said in the release. “With his years of experience in building up teams and winning championships, I have high confidence in the unlimited potential of our program under his leadership. He knows what OU football is all about because he’s lived it, and there’s no doubt he is up to the task.”
Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas tweeted Sunday night: “So happy for coach. He deserves it more than anyone. Hardest working man I have ever known. Y’all take care of him!!”
Tim Bourret, Clemson’s former football communications director who has been a part of Clemson athletics for more than 40 years, tweeted: “Brent Venables has been the most significant assistant coach in any sport in Clemson athletics history.”
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