He had spent more than a decade with Oklahoma, helping lead the Sooners to a national championship and coaching 12 All-Americans.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops texted him.
Venables even ran into Kristen Castiglione, the wife of Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione.
He had an opportunity ahead of him to join the Clemson coaching staff as its defensive coordinator, but he had his entire past behind him.
“It’s a leap of faith,” Venables said.
Venables had a gut feeling that it was right to leave. He said he thought it was the right thing to do for his career. It was a chance to spread his wings.
“You have start all over,” Venables said. “Everything you worked your whole career for and everything I had at Oklahoma. . . . You have to start new relationships in recruiting. Golly, it’s crazy. But it’s been really good.”
He’ll see his former team – and some of the recruits he tried into sway to coming to Oklahoma – Monday in the Russell Athletic Bowl as his new team, No. 17 Clemson, faces his past one.
“It’ll be like old times,” Venables said. “Our relationships go well beyond the football field.”
Stoops knows exactly the process Venables went through when he was waiting in that airport: Deciding whether to stay with comfort at Oklahoma or take a risk and head to Clemson.
He had done it not too many years earlier.
When Stoops left his mentor, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, in 1999 he had a hard time. Snyder gave Stoops his first shot as a defensive coordinator, and a few years later, Stoops did the same for Venables – bringing Venables south from Manhattan, KS.
“With every move, you learn some different things and you get different experiences,” Stoops said. “ . . . We’ve stayed in touch. We share ideas, still. We’re back and forth on the phone and sharing tape. It won’t be these few weeks, but we have.”
The Clemson defense that Venables took the reign of almost three years ago had allowed 25 or more points in 10 of its 13 games the previous year, including 70 points in an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia.
This year, Venables has led the best defense in the country.
Clemson (9-3), which is looking for its third consecutive bowl victory with Venables on staff, ranks in the top 10 in rushing, passing and scoring defense. As well as the top overall defense in the country.
“Slowly, we have kind of changed the expectation and the culture,” Venables said of Clemson, where defense was once an afterthought. “. . . I've been super pleased with our coaches, first and foremost, and then the work that our players have put in and it's been that way since I got here.
“Come into a very a good culture - guys that are hungry and want to work and the willingness to really invest in becoming good quality college football players.”
As the weeks wound down during this season, Venables started to see the chance that he would get a reunion with Oklahoma, which he said looks much different than the scout team that he left.
With every game, the matchup became more of a possibility, and when the Sooners (8-4) were upset by Oklahoma State, it was almost a guarantee – especially when the Big 12 Conference missed out on the College Football Playoff.
Venables didn’t exactly want to play Oklahoma. He hoped it wouldn’t work out.
“Initially, the emotions of it are it’s a guy you hate facing and a guy that you are really close with, that you have incredible respect for and I love those guys,” Venables said. “Hey man, we’re just going to go compete for a few hours and may the best man win and we’ll still be close and things of that nature afterwards.”
The players that Venables recruited for Oklahoma – like Eric Striker, Geneo Grissom and Jordan Phillips – won’t be his direct counterpart when the Russell Athletic Bowl kicks off at 4 p.m. Monday. He’ll get a chance to try and stop Oklahoma freshman running back Samaje Perine, who Venables compared former Stanford All-American Toby Gearhart, and the Oklahoma power-running offensive line, which would be the second biggest offensive line in the NFL.
Not much has changed over the past few years for Venables tough. He said Stoops and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have their similarities. They are successful players-first coaches, who are “really good CEOs.”
Swinney is as much an offensive mastermind as Stoops is a defensive guru. That’s the obvious reason why Swinney brought in Venables, who was being considered for head coaching jobs when he jumped to the east coast – away from his hometown in central Kansas.
It was a hard decision to come by, but it’s one that has changed him for the better.
“It’s helped me as a coach,” Venables said. “That kind of change helps you grow. It’s been a very positive growth obviously but it doesn’t mean it’s better or those kind of things either. It stretches you, it challenges you, forces you to think, forces you to change how you think. . . . Not very many coaches can say they go from one to the other and I was a lucky one. Whatever it is, I make no apologies for it. I was fortunate that way.”