I spent Sunday night watching a livestream of people disembarking from a private jet at a regional airfield in Oklahoma. I wasn’t alone – hundreds of others had gathered there, and who knows how many were following online like me.
It was one of those moments when you step outside yourself and realize the absurdity of some things that mean so much to you. You may be fighting to the death over whether Panic’s best performance of “Love Tractor” was Raleigh in ‘07 or Cain’s Ballroom in ‘96. Suddenly it hits you that you’re overly invested in arguing about the superiority of variations of a piece of work by artists you will never even meet.
The excitement surrounding the moment when Brent Venables stepped off that plane as Oklahoma’s head coach, grinning and pumping his fist, spoke to the psychic damage suffered by fans of the Sooners in recent weeks.
No one should fault Lincoln Riley for leaving to taking advantage of a great opportunity – the Trojans presented him with both a lucrative offer and a rewarding professional challenge. He’s going to live in Southern California and get paid a fortune to rouse one of college football’s sleeping giants.
But the Sooners have been awake for decades. OU football matters a lot to a lot of people. It’s better than it should be for that reason: Generations have taken great pains to cultivate a top-notch program despite lacking the advantages of other powerhouses. Other blue bloods would have scoffed at the idea of putting a 33-year-old assistant with no head coaching experience in charge, and Bob Stoops even orchestrated his retirement in 2017 to give Riley a shot to hit the ground running. It worked great for all parties involved for a few years.
Yet, knowing what we know now, Riley and his agent, Trace Armstrong, clearly spent Riley’s fifth season as OU’s head coach feathering his nest in Los Angeles. His team, meanwhile, played all season like the person in charge couldn’t wait to get out of town. When it came time to split, Riley had the gall to claim his involvement with USC started just hours before he accepted the job. He didn’t owe us loyalty, but he could have given us the courtesy of: a) actually doing the job he was getting paid (well) to do; and b) not treating us like idiots.
This is like a bad SNL skit minus Will Ferrell and any other comedic talent. I almost feel bad for the cruel and unusual hell that Lincoln Riley is living through here. That is truly cringe. #Cringe #Unusual #Hell #USCFootball pic.twitter.com/x27b9leMsv— Jeremy Brown (@JBrownMaven) December 7, 2021
It may sound precious, but the way it went down felt like watching someone piss all over something special to you for nothing more than their own amusement. And like I said, all this matters a lot to a lot of people. After spending 12 years as an assistant in a former life at OU, Venables knows that as well as anyone.
Maybe that familiarity explains the elation around Venables’ return to Norman. He’s not Nick Saban or Urban Meyer – hall-of-famers hired by college football powerhouses to eliminate the already-tiny possibility that their teams might lose on Saturday. At least, not yet.
The truth is that most college football coaches end up unceremoniously escorted out of their offices a few years after they start, and no one can guarantee it will all work out in the end for the Venables and the Oklahoma Sooners. Venables didn’t even leave OU in 2011 under the best of circumstances.
However, Venables wants this opportunity. He burnished his credentials as possibly the best assistant coach in the country during his sojourn in South Carolina. He rebuffed the advances of an untold number of schools that tried to lure him away from Clemson. Venables waited for the right chance to come along for him instead. He picked this one.
Which brings us back to Sunday night, me watching on my laptop as hundreds of people celebrated someone moving halfway across the country to take a new job. Seeing Venables get a hero’s welcome as he stepped off that plane just hit different. Optimism tends to greet new beginnings, but not everyone would have received that kind of reception. There was just something gratifying about seeing the new coach embrace that moment.
After watching Venables play to the crowd for a few minutes, I shut my computer. A wave of self-consciousness washed over me as I realized how much the whole scene got to me. Once that passed, I thought about the fact that Venables will do something on a Saturday afternoon about nine months from now that will fire me and other fans up in a less complimentary fashion. It works that way with coaches, after all.
But as a fan, no amount of cursing Venables for what happens on the field will change what it felt like to see him emerge from that plane.