Back in October, I wrote about processing the results of the Oklahoma Sooners’ first season under head coach Brent Venables. The early signs that the Sooners could be in for a long season proved correct as OU stumbled onto their worst record since 1998. What conclusions can we draw now that we have all the work of the first season?
I coined the term dead man walking nearly a decade ago when I saw that there was a pattern of first-year head coaches posting a -4 game or -game coaching effect
worse in their first year and neither of them make it to the end of their contract. Since then
— Dave Bartoo (@CFBMatrix) October 21, 2019
As I mentioned earlier, if you subscribe to my friend Dave Bartoo’s “Dead Man Walking” heuristic, Venables is essentially cooked. According to this data-driven approach, Venables (and his coaching staff) had a -5 Coaching Effect in their first year, as a result of losses to Kansas State, TCU, Baylor, West Virginia and Texas Tech. So based on OU’s talent profile, those are five games the Sooners shouldn’t lose.
For coaches in their first seasons on the job, the magic number for the Coaching Effect is -4. Coaches who achieve this level of underperformance in their first year rarely survive the end of their first contract.
Of course, DMW describes the relationship between a condition, a coach’s first-year win-loss record, and an outcome, tenure. It’s a tool for predicting success — or lack thereof. It does not imply causality. Coaches with poor Coaching Effect in their first few seasons can break out for a number of reasons, including the simple possibility that they are just bad head coaches.
So if you want a surefire argument that Venables will buck the trend, you won’t find it here. This is not a prediction that he will fail – it admits the reality.
For example, it’s true that the field of college football has changed dramatically in a short period of time. For example, most of the data underlying the DMW was collected before the NCAA relaxed its broadcast rules. Coaching staff now have more flexibility to rebuild their rosters for instant gains. That could Facilitate faster turnarounds before coaches tire of their salutes.
On the other hand, the old transfer rules did more to keep good players loyal to their original teams when hiring new coaches. A coveted player like Caleb Williams, for example, might have stayed with the Sooners if moving to another team required a year off. With that in mind, we may find that OU and programs in similar situations are now pulling themselves out of even deeper holes that require longer deadlines.
Meanwhile, Venables has taken over at a time when some programs are benefiting significantly from eligibility exceptions for players who were on campus during the 2020 season. TCU, for example, played for a national championship in 2022 with a roster full of players in their fifth and sixth seasons.
However, other teams with first-year coaches have also faced veteran opponents this season. Not all of them shared the Sooners’ struggles.
Perhaps that’s a long-winded way of saying I can’t blame anyone who’s pessimistic about Venables’ prospects as OU head coach. It seems natural for doubts to creep in after such a disappointing debut season. In his first 13 games he used a lot of goodwill.
Personally, I still hope for the best. OU has had so much success over the past 25 years because the Sooners were led by coaches resourceful enough to turn almost every single team into a season-winning double-digit game and conference title contender could. For example, consider the work Lincoln Riley did in 2019 in reconfiguring OU’s offense to capitalize on the talents of Jalen Hurts, a year-long lease at quarterback.
But all the victories of Venables’ most immediate predecessors made it easy to ignore a lot of season-to-season scrambling to patch holes in the team. Riley and Bob Stoops demonstrated admirable resilience in developing solutions to keep their teams in contention for the Big 12 titles. Stoops, in particular, had a knack for knowing what to do when the star quarterback got booted off the team or the all-world running back broke his collarbone.
After a while, though, it became OUs to make the most of it — and do it well Mon. It felt like a never-ending high-wire act. It’s worked many times, but the Sooners paid for it this year when they lost a prospective Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to the transfer portal instead of acquiring one.
Venables is aiming for a more sustainable program that can truly compete with the sport’s elite. He has a long-term vision for construction. But if he can’t prove in Year 2 that Year 1 was an anomaly, the chances of him realizing that vision at OU will decrease.