Lonely was a word Brent Venables often said to himself when he first came to Clemson back in the winter of 2012. Although he had all the support he could ask for and was making twice as much money as before, he did not feel fulfilled.
“What fulfills you brings you confidence or trust, loyalty, appreciation or when you feel you have credibility,” Venables explained. “Then you have to start completely over, and you really don’t understand it until you are in the middle of it. It’s not like you can just say, ‘I’m just going to pack my trust suitcase, my reliability suitcase and my years of experience suitcase. I’m a people person so I’m going to mesh with everybody.’
“It takes time to develop relationships, and it takes time to develop trust. It takes time to develop credibility. You don’t have those national championships that you coached. You don’t have those All-Americans that you coached and all the years of the tremendous success that you were a part of. You don’t bring that with you.”
Venables was experiencing a lot of feelings in that first year back in 2012, and his family was too. In that first year, his family lived in a lot of rentals as they were trying to find a place to live. The situation was tough on the family as they felt like they did not really have a home.
“We weren’t a part of the community. We weren’t here,” Venables said as he described those feelings. “It felt very temporary.”
Feeling a job was going to be temporary was Venables’ biggest fear and why he struggled to leave Oklahoma in the first place. At Oklahoma, he knew he had job security. He knew he was at a place that was built to keep winning and was not going any place for a long time to come.
He was the Sooners’ associate head coach and co-defensive coordinator, and his boss, Bob Stoops, was his mentor and recruited him and coached him when he was a player. Oklahoma was permanent as long as Venables wanted to stay there.
“There was a lot of finality in closing that chapter,” Venables said. “It was hard. It was hurtful. It was very hard. It was almost why I did not do it. I’m almost here. I’m in Atlanta and Coach Stoops and I are on the phone texting. He is saying, ‘Come on back. Let’s go!’ That was really, really hard.”
At Clemson, though the future looked bright, there were a lot of unknowns at the time. The Tigers were coming off their first ACC Championship in 20 years, but they were embarrassed in the Orange Bowl, 70-33, by West Virginia, which led to Dabo Swinney letting then-defensive coordinator Kevin Steele go, which ultimately led to Venables’ hire.
Nothing was certain at Clemson. It did not help Venables with his greatest fear — putting his family in a possible temporary situation.
“Coaching can be a vicious and nasty cycle,” he said. “The way I looked at it, now you have to move and change jobs every three or four years, or you are going to be chasing a job. I never wanted to be one of those coaches that were a vagabond coach living out of a suitcase and trying to go from this contract to that contract and did not have a place to call home or a place to call family.
“So I felt maybe people did not understand what my intentions were. I did not come to Clemson so I could get a head job because for some reason I could not parlay a head coaching job from where I was. That couldn’t be further from the truth. You don’t know me. Nobody asked me if that is what I thought.”
Venables, however, did feel like he had to have a heart-to-heart with Swinney. He had to let him know where he was at and just how he was feeling.
“This is just how I feel,” he said. “Not that anyone made me feel like that, but this is how I feel. I did not want to be the defensive coordinator at Clemson as much as I wanted to be in the Clemson family. I want to take my family, and I want to plug them into the Clemson family.
“I’m not just a coach that makes this money and now I have four years left on my contract. I don’t care about that. That is not important to me.”
It turned out to be a healthy conversation for both Venables and Swinney. He wanted Swinney to know he had no desire to leave, he just wanted him to know what was going on in his heart and how he was feeling in that moment.
“This is not the guy who I am, and I do not want to be misunderstood,” Venables recalled relaying to Swinney.
Clemson’s head coach heard Venables, and the relationship between the two is better because of it. Clemson has also benefited.
The Tigers, once the joke of college football after the 70 points they gave up to West Virginia in the 2012 Orange Bowl, are now the defending national champions and have a defense that has finished three straight years in the top 10 and can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
Now people wonder, when will Venables leave to be a head coach? That’s the natural order of things, right?
“There is complication with that,” Venables said, smiling. “I have a great job here. I work at a great place. It’s not just my job. Yes, I’m the defensive coordinator, and I make whatever I make. But I work every day at Clemson for Clemson. I value incredibly what I have, and I have always valued that. That’s why I came here.
“When (Swinney) interviewed me back in 2012, he asked me why I was interested in Clemson. I told him, ‘I have been watching from afar. I knew he recruited well, it is an incredible place in the country to work and to live, and I heard that from many people that lived and worked in this part of the country and from the outside looking in, everything is sitting in front of it with the opportunity to explode. I want to be a small part in helping to build that.’”
On the field, Venables could see midway through his first season at Clemson that his defense was starting to get better. He said there was never a time when he wondered whether coming to Clemson was the right move because he prayed heavily on it and, spiritually, he knew it was the right move.
“But when that kick went through against LSU, you felt it was validation to a certain degree,” Venables smiled. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Man, this never happens to me.’ I get those little scratch-off things at the convenience store, and I never win. It was kind of like, ‘I don’t deserve this.’
“I had been a part of a lot of big wins, but when that kick went through that was pretty cool. I don’t believe I had ever been a part of a game, and I know I hadn’t — that was the first time where the last play of the game decided the game … that was my first time.”
The play of course was a 37-yard field goal by former Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro as time expired to beat No. 7 LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, 25-24. Venables’ defense, by the way, held the SEC’s Tigers to 219 total yards, including 99 rushing yards.
“That was so cool, and I was so happy for our players because we had been told how worthless we were on defense in particular,” Venables said. “We had no chance to win the game, and LSU had all the guys. We not only beat them, but in our mind we beat them at their own game — the physicality — and we played our best game of the year hands down.
“That was kind of the start. There was just a lot of belief for us inside that locker room. ‘We got this. We can do this.’ I was so proud.”
In Venables’ second year, the Tigers again showed marked improvement as they led the nation in tackles for loss and were ranked in the top 20 nationally in total and scoring defense. They again capped it off with a physical performance against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.
The stage was set for what has happened the last three years. In 2014, Clemson led the nation in total defense and 10 other defensive categories, while in 2015 and 2016 the units helped Clemson play in two national championship games, while winning it all in 2016.
“Coach Swinney is that big visionary guy, and I am in the moment like, ‘We stink! We can’t stop anybody!’ I’m a positive guy. If you do X-Y-Z, then you are going to get the result you want, period. One hundred percent of the time,” Venables said. “But in my mind, we were not doing X-Y-Z good enough. But sometimes you do not have to do it perfect to get that, but I know one way for sure you are going to get the results you want so that is how I coach.”
Venables’ belief that working and practicing hard leads to good things started rubbing off on his players. He saw it firsthand following the 2012 season when defensive back Garry Peters came into his office and asked him, “Coach, Do you ever think we can have the No. 1 defense in the country here?”
“I told him, ‘We have a long way to go, brother,’” Venables recalled telling Peters. “We had to fix all the little stuff. But I always appreciated Garry for that transparency and having that want-to. I just wanted to be good. I didn’t want to put the cart before the horse, but maybe sometimes you need to.”
In 2014, Peters was a part of a Clemson defense that led the nation in yards allowed at 260.8. Five times the Tigers held their opponents under 200 yards and three other times opponents failed to gain 300 yards in game. They pitched two shutouts and held two other teams to seven points or less. They also led the nation in tackles for loss, sacks and passing defense.
“That’s my standard. That’s the standard,” Venables said. “More than anything was their willingness to be coached, the confidence they prepared and played with, the maturity of that group and you could not satisfy them for nothing. They never once got full of themselves. They never lost that edge — that hunger and that desire. It was never good enough.
“‘Coach, let’s run that again! That was good enough. When you get the players policing themselves like that, and after a big win, they come back and say, ‘That was not good enough, and we are going to have to play better next week.’ When you have that, you have something special.”
Venables says 2016 is the standard for how a unit needs to show up for the playoff. The Tigers shut out Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes’ worst bowl loss since the 1920s and the first time they had been shutout since 1993. The Tigers went on to hold Alabama to just 2-of-15 on third down, including 15 straight failed attempts on third down.
It was the exact opposite of how the defense played in the second half against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.
“I was really disgusted, and it showed a real lack of maturity in the second half and really midway through the third quarter when we had a chance to blow Virginia Tech out,” Venables said. “We started messing around and let them back in the game, and we looked like a bunch of chumps.
“That was really disappointing because of the way we came back after the Pitt loss and beat Wake in a dominant fashion. We played that game with the energy, tenacity, precision and toughness. … I look at that, and then we came back and played the same way against South Carolina.”
But the Virginia Tech game was an aberration. Clemson’s defense came back for bowl practice humbled, hungry and ready to work. It paid off as they held the Buckeyes to just nine first downs, 88 yards rushing, 127 passing, forced three turnovers and to just 3-of-14 on third down.
The Big Ten’s No. 1 scoring offense and No. 1 offense in terms of yards and rushing yards was held to 215 total yards and did not score a point. It was also Clemson’s third shutout of the season, something that had not happened at Clemson since the 1990 team did the same.
“Those guys really overachieved,” Venables said. “We had a bunch of first-year starters and we had some depth issues, but I thought they came out and really played beyond their years.”
They played for their defensive coach, who four years earlier was feeling lonely and wondering if Clemson was just going to be a temporary stop in his life. What he discovered was a place he now calls home with a group of players and coaches he thinks of as family … the Clemson family.
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