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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Life in interesting times

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Thinking about how to evaluate Brent Venables’ first season as OU’s head coach.

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NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

An old sports reporter from Chicago once let me in on a secret about covering the Bulls during the halcyon days of the franchise in the 1990s: It was really boring.

Unfortunately for the beat writers, the Bulls were too good. The hacks only had so many ways they could write about Michael Jordan being great and the team winning again. It took work to find fresh angles for game stories. But it also felt silly to pretend as though a few three-pointers from Jud Buechler were instrumental in a game in which His Airness had just put up 45 points.

Although they’re certainly not the ‘90s Bulls of college football, the Oklahoma Sooners have been one of the models of success in the sport for decades. I have been writing about them now for longer than I care to remember, and I’ll cop to the fact that I’ve often wished for something to happen that felt a little more interesting.

Well, now we’re finding out what interesting is really like.

Sitting at 3-2 overall and 0-2 in Big 12 play, you could make the case that OU still has time to right the ship in its first season under new coach Brent Venables. But if last Saturday’s roasting from the TCU Horned Frogs was any indication, the Sooners probably have multiple losses ahead of them in 2022. (The fact that OU is a seven-point underdog to Texas suggests one of them is coming Saturday.)

You could draw a lot of wisdom from the perspective Andy Staples of The Athletic ($) offered on OU’s inauspicious start. He painted OU’s struggles as an inevitable side effect of bringing on new leadership to guide the program into the SEC.

According to Staples, although Lincoln Riley’s tenure at OU was a smashing success, it also provided ample reason to believe the Sooners needed a new approach to level up. As such, the program might be better positioned to win this season with its former coaching staff – and, by extension, quarterback Caleb Williams – still in the fold. The trade-off, however, would be kicking the can on the future.

In other words, even though Riley’s decision to leave for USC left OU in scramble mode, it also gave athletic director Joe Castiglione a chance to reset the program’s course for the years to come.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

So back to the “interesting” part. Intellectually, watching Venables mold the OU program to prepare for the move to the SEC definitely qualifies. But from the fan side of the brain, does that process really require grinning and bearing it through ass-kickings like the one the Sooners received last week from TCU?

Even Venables would admit that it shouldn’t. As the season rolls on, how do you distinguish acceptable setbacks from red flags about the future?

If you want objective criteria to answer that question, you could look at the situation through the prism of what college football data analyst Dave Bartoo has termed “coaching effect.” It refers to a team’s tendency to win or lose games it shouldn’t, using overall talent levels and home-field advantage to create baseline scenarios. Win a game you should lose, that’s plus one; lose a game you should win, that’s minus one. (If the team does what it should – win or lose – that’s a zero.) As an example, retired Kansas State coach Bill Snyder had a remarkable coaching effect over the course of his career, while Mack Brown’s coaching effect is terrible.

For the record, the losses to KSU and TCU have left Venables with a coaching effect of -2 games so far. The danger zone for a first-year coach is -4 games or worse, according to Bartoo. Those coaches rarely make it to the end of their contracts. Intuitively, this phenomenon makes sense if you think of it like a floor for projecting the possibility of long-run success. Transitions almost always have costs, but you can reach a certain level of underperformance in year one that signifies systemic problems with the new coaching regime.

That seems like a useful framework from 10,000 feet up for evaluating a coach’s first year on the job. On the other hand, the problem with using coaching effect as the primary measuring stick for year one is that it theoretically creates incentives for coaches to chase short-term success at the expense of the program’s long-term health.

A hypothetical example: What if OU’s current defensive woes stem from the complexity of Venables’ scheme? Simplifying the D might cut down the learning curve for a shot at more wins this year. However, if Venables believes the best thing for the program in the long run is to throw the defense in the deep end, compromising just to make his first season look a little prettier seems like a mistake.

Of course, the Sooners have only played five games with him running the show. It is way too early to draw any conclusions about Venables’ first season, let alone what the future holds for him and OU. We’ll have a much richer picture of how year one played out in a few months.

At the very least, it will be interesting.