The reunion storyline has dominated the talk headed into the Russell Athletic Bowl between Oklahoma and Clemson.
But if Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had his way, he would have done anything he could to avoid facing his former team.
The relationships he developed in 13 seasons with Bob Stoops and the Sooners remain remarkably strong. There is no bitterness, no anger, just mutual admiration on both sides -- from players and coaches.
Take Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard. Though he never played one down for Venables, the two spent countless hours together at Oklahoma while Shepard was growing up. As has been well-documented, Stoops invited Shepard to be a part of the football program with open arms following the death of his father, Derrick, a former Sooners great.
Shepard did not just hang out with Stoops, though. He grew close with all the coaches on staff, including Venables.
“As a young kid I just remember talking to him a lot,” Shepard said in a recent interview. “I had a pretty close relationship with all the coaches at that time, so throughout the years of me just being there and being around the facility we saw each other a lot of the time so we’d talk. ...
“I always loved how passionate he was for the game. You could tell his nose was in the book at all times. He knew the ins and outs of the defense. He’d be fired up every game day. That’s what I liked most about him.”
Shepard also grew into a high school standout, playing defensive back and receiver. Oklahoma initially recruited him to play defensive back, where he attended camps and got first-hand coaching from Venables. And that coaching was intense.
“If you didn’t do a drill right, you were going to go back and do it again until you got it right,” Shepard said. “His voice would be gone for sure ... his head beet-red sometimes from screaming so much but he definitely got the guys fired up. No doubt about it.”
But Shepard really wanted to play receiver, something that was fine with the Oklahoma staff. He signed in 2012, Venables’ first season at Clemson.
Despite a groin injury that kept him out or limited him in the final four games of the regular season, Shepard still leads the Sooners with 957 yards and five touchdowns. Shepard is expected to play Monday.
Venables will be ready and waiting.
“He grew up in the middle of our team breakdowns and practice and fall camp and football camps and sidelines on game days,” Venables said. “He’s a great ambassador for that program. I know his dad’s awfully proud as well as the rest of his family. He’s a terrific ball player. I feel terrible that he’s been banged up this year but knowing him and the fortitude that he has, he’ll find a way to get back out there on the field to finish the year off. Real proud of Sterling and how he’s grown up.”
Venables also built a close relationship with Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker during the recruiting process. Striker, who played high school football in Florida, chose Oklahoma in large part because of Venables.
But before he had a chance to sign in 2012, Venables was gone. Striker has not gone into much length or depth about having to face the man who recruited him to Oklahoma, telling local reporters earlier in December, “He's not here no more.”
Shepard said, “I know some of the guys he did recruit are fired up. Coaching changes happen all the time, we just know that he knows a lot about this program, and just guys are fired up to play him because he recruited them here.”
For his part, Venables has tried to put Oklahoma out of his mind. As he says, "You have to separate what your job is and what your past was. I'll be just fine. At the end of the day, it's all about those guys with the paw on their helmet."