Recently, Lee Benson of News 9 in Oklahoma City put out a couple tweets about new Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables that went viral for all the wrong reasons:
I'll have to check our archives, but I don't recall video of the last head guy putting this kind of effort into personally teaching the linebackers smh pic.twitter.com/pB0y8BX7GK— Lee Benson (@LeeBensonNews9) March 28, 2022
whoa. It would appear 1-on-1 instruction from the new #Sooners head coach is not just limited to linebackers. Evidence suggests the defensive line has his focus as well. pic.twitter.com/b7ktRZLnep— Lee Benson (@LeeBensonNews9) March 29, 2022
Divorced from context, that sounds like a sycophantic hack playing the scorned lover over Lincoln Riley jilting the Sooners for USC. It would also seem like a particularly lame potshot at Riley, who served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at OU, for not coaching up the defense. An example of the dunking that commenced:
“Why didn’t the QB guru teach linebackers like this!” cried the Oklahoma fan into the void https://t.co/9hVX7V21K2— Chris Treviño (@ChrisNTrevino) March 30, 2022
Except that’s not what Benson was talking about. In fact, he was referencing this:
Three invitations inside #Sooners spring practice. 40 minutes each.— Lee Benson (@LeeBensonNews9) March 28, 2022
Previous regime would usually allow media in twice, for 15-20 mins each time.
We’re so welcome that I half expected Dillon Gabriel make me carry his helmet and shoulder pads out to practice for him. pic.twitter.com/nehvF3c8NJ
Translation: Reporters don’t have footage of Riley doing any hands-on coaching from his time at OU because he kept a fanatically tight lid on the program.
The truth is Benson was far from alone among his professional peers in commenting on the access Venables has afforded members of the media during spring practice. The contrast with the previous regime points to what many beat reporters covering OU would certainly acknowledge in private: Riley’s relationship with the local media – to the extent one even existed – was terrible. (Obfuscating the truth when CeeDee Lamb sat out a nationally televised game against Baylor in 2019 proved Riley didn’t have any compunction about antagonizing the Chris Fowlers and Kirk Herbstreits of the CFB world, either.)
To be fair, petty turf wars break out all the time between media members and control-freak coaches. The standards for media access at college football programs around the country are trending towards ultra-restrictive policies on everything from opening practices to making players available for questions. Riley, however, cultivated a talent for eliding the truth and withholding basic information on matters like suspensions. It didn’t win him many fans on the beat during his five seasons as head coach – don’t let anyone tell you differently.
A new coach trying to curry favor with the local media is par for the course. Sitdowns with prominent local columnists and radio and TV interviews come with the territory. Venables has hit all those marks so far.
But OU’s new head coach seems to be going above and beyond the customary obligations to the fourth estate. Venables is sending surprise invitations to local reporters to observe practice sessions. He shot the breeze for roughly an hour with former OU standouts Gabe Ikard and Teddy Lehman on their podcast. When a bunk internet connection messed up portions of a Zoom call to discuss OU’s 2022 recruiting class, he did the same drill all over again the following day for 90 minutes.
After five years of Riley’s Bill Belichick act with the press, perhaps Venables is trying to distinguish himself from his predecessor. More likely, if you recall his time as defensive coordinator at OU from 1999 to 2011, this is just who Venables is. But even if Venables is simply going through his paces as a new head coach, the fact that he’s making the effort matters.
Winning over the media won’t help Venables if his teams aren’t winning on the field. However, his passion in front of a camera or behind a mic bleeds over into the message he’s sending to the public and to his players. That level of enthusiasm feels invigorating for fans who had grown accustomed to Riley constantly holding the outside world at arm’s length.
And if the Sooners do have a successful first season with Venables at the helm? Think of the time he’s putting in now with the media as laying a foundation to capitalize on even greater opportunities then.