THE STORY OF BRENT VENABLES - Part 4
What do you know about Brent Venables?
Like, what do you really know about Brent Venables?
The surface-level persona is engrossing and enchanting enough.
The love of Clemson and its surroundings, the ability to grasp just how good he and his family have it at the top of the college football mountain even if his name is not at the top of the organizational chart.
The all-consuming focus and fire that is evident not just on game days, but also when he is fully immersed in preparation and concentration on a challenging opponent.
The utter joy he shows after a challenge aced, the pride for and in his players who have given him everything they've had not just physically but mentally.
The appreciation for the head coach's mandate to luxuriate in the fun that must come with the winning.
The common sight of him losing himself in the moment so thoroughly that there is a get-back coach charged with keeping him from incurring penalties for venturing off the sidelines.
He looks and acts the part of a maniac, and since he's at Clemson you love him because he's your maniac.
A litany of opposing fans are substantially less enthused to see that guy on the opposing sidelines, gesturing wildly and pumping his fists and yelling as meticulous study of an offense's tendencies culminates in the now-common sight of his players seemingly knowing exactly what's coming.
So the average fan looks at the 48-year-old Thomas Brent Venables and is thoroughly satisfied by the story that has been told thus far, a story of great defenses year after year after year and a story of a man at the top of his profession even if he doesn't occupy the top office in his program.
Venables appears so consummately fueled by his job that it would be logical to conclude he is defined by his job.
But there is so much more to him and his life than that.
In October of 2008, Dabo Swinney sat down with Tigerillustrated.com and told his tumultuous, heartbreaking, heartwarming life story.
Venables recently agreed to open up about his own dysfunctional upbringing, and how he dealt with tragedy that struck when he was well into a successful coaching career.
Some of the details he is sharing for the first time and aren't yet known to most people, including his own boss.
Rather than composing our own take on Venables' story, injecting our own voice and interpretations, we opted to get out of the way and let him tell it all himself.
Here is Part 4 of Brent Venables' life, in his own words:
So my oldest brother Kirk went back home to Denver after completing the three-month alcohol treatment program. When he got there, he was in a relationship with a girl who had her own demons. Her problem was pain meds. Kirk didn't mess with pills, but they were just toxic for each other. They enabled each other to have their addictions. He needed help, and the girl he was with definitely was not capable of helping him.
In May of 2011, Kirk died in the middle of the night after suffering a seizure. Obviously, getting that call is really, really devastating. Toby Keith, a big Oklahoma booster, was nice enough to fly us to Denver on his jet so we could be there hours after it happened.
It was horrible, just horrible. Kirk had so much going for him but was just in such a bad place. Those demons, he couldn't fight them anymore. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen, that I'd lose my brother at age 43.
That was his home they lived in, so that was a tough thing to go through. I knew what he would want. Even though she was trouble for him, he still loved her and cared about her. So we gave her a few months to stay there and then told her we had to move on. The house wasn't paid for yet, so we needed to move on. We helped her move from there and get on her own feet and have some closure with Kirk. Boy, that was just a tough experience.
And that wasn't all the devastation we were going through at that time. That was only half of it.
Literally the day before I got the call that Kirk had died, I got another call. This one was from the father of Austin Box, one of my linebackers. His father told me Austin had suffered a drug overdose and they were in the emergency room.
So I got into the car and raced to Oklahoma City, about 20 miles north of Norman. I walk into the room and his dad Craig and mom Gail were standing over Austin's body. He had just passed away.
Talk about something bringing you to your knees. Austin's death was devastating to everyone. A parent should never, ever have to bury a child. I think that's probably as bad an experience someone could possibly go through.
Austin was a golden boy, an All-American boy. Player of the year in the state of Oklahoma in high school. Dad is a lawyer. His lifelong dream was to be a Sooner. Starter. Captain. A great player. A great person. He was getting ready for his senior year. But he was trying to overcome some knee surgeries and a back issue, and he got addicted to painkillers and we never knew it. It became a social thing for him and he was out with some buddies. Those friends were not with the team, but he was drinking with them and getting mixed up into that and it was too much for him.
So drugs tragically took his life at 22 years of age. An autopsy found five different painkillers in his system, plus an anti-anxiety drug. Austin also had an enlarged heart, and he'd had a history of chronic pain. The most recent injury he had suffered was a ruptured disc in his back, and that caused him to lose the feeling in his left foot. Even through all that he kept playing, and he was expected to start for us in 2011 before his overdose.
Coach Stoops was on vacation in Europe at the time. So I was the person to speak at a press conference announcing Austin was gone. It was hard to keep it together.
Those two events, losing a player one day and your brother the next, it just shakes you to your core. It shakes your faith, shakes everything. I just questioned a lot of things. It was a devastating turn of events.
I think about those days, my brother and Austin, every day. Every single day. It's just heartbreaking to see two lives tragically come to an end. And both of them to addiction. It just still blows me away, all these years later. Both of them were men who had incredible gifts. They had the ability to have life right where you want it.
Addiction is powerful and evil and just awful. So many lives ruined. So many lives taken way too early. Having some of the closest people taken from me that way was just an awful, awful experience. And I know the Boxes still live with that every day. Losing a child, I just can't imagine. It's still tough to think about and deal with eight years later.
So 2011, my 13th season at Oklahoma, we did an awesome thing to honor Austin. Every week, a different defensive player would wear his No. 12 in honor of him. And then Austin's family went on to devote themselves to spreading awareness about opioid addiction. A lot of legislation has come as a result of that, so that part of it was a gift Austin brought his mom to bring light to a very dark issue that's going on across America.
Even after losing my brother, I was able to treasure so much the fact that we had him close to us for those three months. It was just a great time. That time being sober gave Kirk some hope and it gave him some clarity. It gave him a few more months of a quality life. For the first time in a number of years, he was able to experience what God had made him for.
That was a really emotionally tough year, as you can imagine. That was a year we had agreed to allow ESPN behind the scenes for an All-Access series they were doing. And that was a hard thing to deal with, too, given the exposure. We were still deep in grief at that point, still trying to process Austin being gone, and ESPN's cameras were all over the place.
We got hot too soon that year and we had some injuries. We started out 6-0, we beat Florida State in Tallahassee 23-13 in the second game, and we crushed Texas 55-17 in the fifth game.
But then in the seventh game, Texas Tech came to Norman and we were honoring Austin. We had a couple hours of delays for rain and lightning, and it seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We lost that game 41-38, and it ended our 39-game home winning streak. It was one of the most shocking upsets of our entire time at Oklahoma. We were four-touchdown favorites in that game. We were 75-2 at home under Coach Stoops before that night.
We ended up losing 45-38 at Baylor, who had Robert Griffin III. And then we got smashed 44-10 at Oklahoma State. We beat Iowa in the bowl game to finish 10-3, but it was a disappointing season after we started 6-0.
Mike Stoops got fired at Arizona and was coming back to Norman to coach the defense with me as a co-coordinator. People made a big deal out of that, saying I viewed it as a demotion, but that was nowhere close to true. I loved Mike; he was like family. To make room for Mike, my secondary coach was out. Losing Willie Martinez was hard. He was not only a great friend, but a terrific coach and an amazing family man. I just started reevaluating everything and started thinking about the possibility of the next move, the next chapter.
So around this time, I'd heard Kevin Steele was out at Clemson. And I didn't know Coach Swinney, but I really liked what I saw of him on television in 2011 -- celebrating on the field after the win over Auburn, yelling and showing his emotions and just being himself. It just seemed like they were having a lot of fun.
In 2008 I had interviewed for the head job at Clemson with Terry Don Phillips when Coach Swinney was auditioning. So there was a relationship there, and I called Terry Don. I told him I didn't know if Coach Swinney would be interested in me, but if he was I was willing to talk.
So Coach Swinney called, and we were on the phone for hours. And then soon thereafter Julie and I came to Clemson and it was just such a revelation. We loved it. It was a recruiting weekend, so we got to see a lot of different elements of how they showcased themselves. It was almost like we were recruits, too. And we were blown away.
When we got on that plane to go back to Oklahoma, we knew this was the place for us. But it was still so hard to follow through on it. In fact, even after telling Coach Swinney I was coming I had a change of heart. I called him to tell him I just couldn't do it, that I was staying in Norman. I left him a voicemail, and he called me back. He was on an airport runway about to take off on a recruiting trip. He said: "Whatever you do, wait until I land so we can talk about this. Don't do anything until I have a chance to talk to you."
I had told Coach Stoops I was staying. But then I got home and told Julie what I'd decided and she was upset. She wouldn't let me do it. She reminded me of how excited I was when we were in Clemson -- how excited we both were. So by the time Coach Swinney landed and we talked, I'd already decided we were coming to Clemson.
Even after that, it was still very hard. Saying goodbye to a lot of great friends was tremendously difficult. When I was at the airport on the way to Clemson in Oklahoma City, of all people I see the wife of Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione. We both broke down crying, and I wondered if that was a sign that I was making the wrong move. But I got on that plane and I went to Clemson.
The entire first year here was hard. I just felt like I was in a foreign land. A lot of that time my family was still in Oklahoma and I was living out of a hotel. I didn't know anyone, didn't bring any staff from Oklahoma, and I was just so far out of my comfort zone. I remember that first game, against Auburn in Atlanta, looking around the Georgia Dome and wondering: "What am I doing?" It was intimidating.
I viewed this as the next chapter of my life. I never viewed it as a quick stop on the way to something bigger. People were saying I was planning to stay at Clemson long enough to get a head job, but I never, ever, ever looked at it like that.
It was really just a calculated, life-changing decision: "OK, we're going to go to Clemson. And that's where we're going to be." That's how I looked at it when the decision was finally made. It wasn't like, "Hey, it's only going to be for a little bit, kids." And it wasn't, "Honey, if we do well here then maybe I can become a head coach." That was never once the thought or the plan. That's just not how I've ever been. It's not how Julie and I have ever been. We want to have roots. We want to have stability. We want to have certainty. And we want to be part of a family.
Some of the most awesome moments of my life came in Norman. We won the national championship. My two sons were born there. And then we had our two daughters there after five miscarriages over five years. We were trying to have more children after we had our boys, but then after the fifth miscarriage we took a year off to get Julie physically healthy. That was a really hard time for her body to go through over those years. It was very hard on her emotionally as well. But then we were blessed with Delaney and Addie, and they were back-to-back -- 13 months apart. What a blessing those two girls have been to our family. Now we're able to see it's just all been part of that plan. These two girls are the sweetest, brightest, feistiest source of laughter and love. As anyone with daughters knows, daughters are just different. It's been such a blessing for us.
So some of the finest moments of my life happened when I was at Oklahoma, but also some of the darkest moments. As a dad, as a husband, as a brother. Some of our best friends are still in Norman. We have some incredibly great memories from there, but also some really tough things.
Through it all, Coach Stoops and his family were there for me. He and Carol were there through the darkest of the dark times, and then certainly the best of the best. He was at my wedding. He was there for me when my mother and my brother passed away. And we went through the death of Austin Box together.
In 13 years there, I had a whole lifetime of memories and experiences. It was a wonderful 13 years. That's what life is, right? The good and the bad, and you've got to take it all together.
As young parents, we both really wanted a Christian lifestyle for our family. So we went to church, put our kids in vacation bible school and got them baptized there. Faith became a part of our lives, our foundation.
I came to Clemson just eight months after losing my brother and Austin Box. So it's natural to wonder how much of a role that played in leading me to go out on my own. I honestly don't know the answer to that question. Maybe I never will. But I do know that something like that hits you really, really hard. To the point that you reevaluate everything. That was just a very difficult time, and it still is.
I have a tendency to compartmentalize things, just like most people. But losing Kirk and Austin -- you don't compartmentalize that. It becomes a part of your everyday living, part of every fiber in your body. I do think that those events got me thinking about my family, evaluating things for my life differently. The shakeup of the coaching staff was hard, too. But I do know through my faith, without reservation, that God said: "We're making a hard right-hand turn here. Whether you like it or not, this is what we're doing." I think I was more in tune with my spiritual life through those experiences. And that ended up giving me the confidence and the clarity and the courage that we needed to come here.
I can't tell you how great Julie's parents have been for me through this whole process, through all of the ups and downs. Their names are Carl and Vicki, and they've been like parents to me in so many ways. You hear the horror stories about in-laws? I don't know anything about that. It's been just the opposite. They've been such good people and good influences in my life, and the absolute best in-laws you could ever ask for. They're awesome grandparents to our children.
When we were at Oklahoma, it was like they were born-and-bred Sooner fans. They went to all of our games, they'd come from Kansas City and see us play and stay at our place. And same thing since we came to Clemson. They'll come out for weeks at a time. Just incredibly supportive, understanding and just loving. Stable. Just great, great people, and very impactful in our life as a family. They've been on this journey with us here for 23 years. And for me, they've been one of those sources of positivity that I've needed through my life.
I really feel like Coach Swinney is almost like the 13th disciple. Through my own experiences, but also just watching him change lives. He impacts the lives of not just players, but people in this community, people in the state. And certainly he has impacted our family in so many incredible ways. Ever since I came to Clemson, probably about twice a week now I have those moments where I smile knowing God has winked at me. And that's when you know this this is where you're supposed to be. And who you're supposed to be with. And to me, it's just getting started here.
Coach Swinney has impacted our family in such incredible ways. We're just so thankful for the turn of events and the steps that God has ordered for our family. There are a lot of similarities between my story and Coach Swinney's, and I've probably heard his story more than he's heard mine. I think I told some of my story during a devotion at one point my first year here, but just parts of it. He hasn't heard all of it. I had kept some of the things to myself. But the devotions at Clemson have been such an an awesome part of my spiritual journey. The transparency and the vulnerability have been very, very healthy in my walk and certainly in my growth and experience here in every part of my life. I've never been more connected to a group of people than what I am here.
Through this experience at Clemson, we've had the ability to go through a lot of healing from those dark moments. A lot of times people look at you just as a coach and they tie your identity to wins and losses. But you go through everything just like everybody does, the good and the bad. I lost two of my uncles last season. Uncle Larry was planning on coming to the Cotton Bowl. He lived in San Antonio with my Aunt Judy, and he was going to come to the game. They had to move from Colorado after he had a lung removed, and they chose San Antonio because the humidity was good for his condition.
He loved Clemson. Man, he loved Clemson. They went to a number of our games and came to Clemson at times, just loved the area. They were all excited about going to Dallas because it was just down the road, but he didn't make it. He passed away quietly just before going to an appointment a week before our game against Notre Dame. But some of my family went to the Cotton Bowl, and so did some friends from Norman. We had a nice reunion there at the hotel and got to enjoy that Irish butt-whooping in honor of both of my uncles.
I lost my biological dad a few years ago. I chose not to go to his funeral because he wasn't my dad. I didn't know him. You've got to earn the right to be a dad. He left us when I was 2.
Somebody reached out to Coach Swinney and told him my dad had died. They couldn't get hold of me and didn't know how, so they were able to let Coach Swinney know.
I was actually going to go to the funeral initially, just to pay my respects. But I didn't know what the right thing to do was. Do you go? Do you not? I didn't really feel like I had to or should. But then my brother Ken said, "Wait a minute. Are you crazy? We ain't going. That ain't happening." So I said OK and let him lead the way on that one.
The only other time we had seen my dad was before my senior year of high school. He was living in the San Francisco area, and I had reached out to him. I basically said: "Hey man, I'd like to come meet you." So we arranged for me to make a trip out there.
I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Santa Rosa, which is north of San Francisco. I stayed with them for a few days, and then they took me down to spend a week with my dad. I also got Kirk and Ken to come out there during that same visit.
We lasted about three or four days, and then I called my aunt and uncle and told them to come get me. It just didn't go well. He didn't know how to be a dad. And I was a young, immature kid who didn't know what I was doing. It just wasn't going well. Like, he wouldn't talk to me. We had some little spat about something and he wouldn't even talk to me. So I didn't want to hang around him any longer.
My dad was big into sailboating, and we went sailing and it was an epic fail. A windy, rainy day in San Francisco Bay. Got seasick and everything else. It was a horrible experience. Nice thought by him, but a terrible experience. Kirk and Ken left early too.
But in the few days I was there, I made my dad promise that if I made the Shrine Bowl my senior year that he would come see me play. Well, I ended up making the Shrine Bowl. The game was in Wichita, and he flew in for the game. He was around everybody, my family and everyone. I remember it being awkward. I never blame myself for it because I was the kid in the whole thing. But there was just never that connection. The relationship that I wanted just never materialized. And so that was that.
One summer when I was at Oklahoma, he reached out to me to tell me he was having a heart procedure and he just wanted me to know. That procedure went fine. But then years later he was having a stint put in and passed away at age 74.
My dad never really took the initiative to tell us why he left us, and I think that was the main point of consternation on our part. He wasn't ready to talk about it, or he didn't know how to communicate it. And that didn't go over well. I mean, wow. You can imagine.
It wasn't like he had come from hard times. He was from a really well-to-do family and was a Colonel in the Air Force. A college graduate. A highly decorated guy, a career serviceman. It's just wild to me. Who chooses not to be a dad? How do you do everything to become a dad and then you're not a father to them? That just blows me away. I just didn't have a father. The coaches in my life, and a few teachers, were the best influences I had outside of my own family. I always just sort of looked at it as his loss. But it still just never made sense to me.
One thing I took from my upbringing, one thing I was always certain of, was that I was going to be a father who would be there for my kids. I knew that early on. I was going to provide stability for my family. I just knew, at a very young age, what I wanted my life to look like. My mom was always preaching education and college and all that, so even in those bad times I had grand ideas. And I knew what my life wasn't going to look like. None of the alcoholism, and whoever I decided to marry we were going to have a great family and we were going to do all the fun family stuff. And my family was never going to have to worry about abuse or addiction or any of those things I was exposed to.
Ken had lived in Salt Lake City, but I talked him into coming here to be with the only family we have left. We were in a position financially where we could help the transition, so he moved to Clemson and lived here for a few years. Then he got a job in Asheville, and that's where he lives. He works for the United Way there and does a great job, loves what he's doing. But he's able to come here and be a part of our family on a regular basis. He's a great uncle to our kids.
Ken has a lot of artistic talent, so the girls love drawing and coloring and painting things with him. My daughter Addie won one of those artist contests that have a couple of counties competing against each other. Man, that was a proud moment for Uncle Ken because he brings out those traits in my girls. It's been a real gift to have him out here in this part of the country with us, and for him to be able to experience a lot of the stuff my girls and my boys are going through. And me, too. Having him here close to me has been awesome.
I know it's been well documented that I've had opportunities to be a head coach. But I know what my calling is, and that is to be right here. I'm just so thankful and appreciative and fortunate to have the opportunity to be influenced by so many good people -- for my family, for myself, for the kind of young men that I'm able to coach every day. It truly is a special place.
Through years of experience, I've been given the wisdom to recognize what I have. But honestly, I've always kind of thought that way. Loyalty was one of Bill Snyder's big things, but I've always been a loyalist at heart and I've always longed for stability. So when I came here, man I kind of had it all -- stability of program, lifestyle, and just being challenged in so many different ways to grow in every part of my life, most notably spiritually. Just a whole other level of experience and relationship with my faith, and the same has been true for my family. That's when you know the steps have been ordered and you've followed suit. So here we are.
In closing, I want to reinforce how incredible the Swinneys and Clemson have been for us. I feel like God has put us through a variety of things to bring us to this place, with these people. I really think the Swinneys are such incredible people, and they've had such an impact in our lives in so many ways for our family -- not just me, but everyone.
We've never been more sure and confident in where we are, what we're doing, and who we are with, than where we've been since we've been here. We knew it would be a great place, otherwise we wouldn't have come. But it's so much better than we thought and hoped it would be. That's the biggest thing for me. And I know my family feels the same way.