As I sit here today, my guess is that yes, Steve Sarkisian and Brent Venables will be SEC head coaches.

Of course, in order to add “SEC head coach” to their respective résumés, they both have to survive the 2023 season. That, as we know, should never be assumed in this era of 8-figure buyouts, which both coaches have in their fully guaranteed contracts.

But as Oklahoma and Texas both try to get their ducks in a row before they join the SEC in 2024, it’s worth digging into the job security of Sarkisian and Venables.

Let’s start with Venables.

Coming off Oklahoma’s first losing season since 1998, there’s no sort of pats on the back being handed out for Venables, especially when he watched fellow Year 1 Big 12 coach Sonny Dykes do something that the Sooners have yet to do: win a Playoff game. For now, forget about the Playoff. That’s not a realistic goal in Oklahoma’s final season with the Big 12.

What’s far more interesting is if a repeat season could cost Venables his job.

Once upon a time, John Blake got the boot in Norman after 3 lackluster seasons in the late-1990s. That was at a time when Oklahoma was more than a decade removed from a top-10 finish as opposed to the 7 consecutive top-10 finishes that preceded the Venables era. In hindsight, sure, he was destined to have some Year 1 bumps in the road after all the talent lost to the transfer portal in the wake of Lincoln Riley’s USC exit.

But whatever sort of leeway Venables had with his Year 1 personnel probably won’t carry much weight in Year 2. He aggressively attacked the portal with 9 Power 5 additions, and rumors of a potential Jeff Lebby-to-Alabama exit never materialized. We also saw Oklahoma finish with the No. 4 high school recruiting class in the 247sports class rankings for 2023. Even though the Sooners are a bit average in percentage of returning production (No. 77 in FBS), anything short of a multi-win improvement would be deemed a massive disappointment.

If that scenario were to play out, could Joe Castiglione pull the plug on Venables after just 2 seasons? It’s worth noting that Castiglione has plenty of job security himself. He played a massive part in ushering in the 21st century of Oklahoma by hiring Bob Stoops. Lord knows that Castiglione would love to win the breakup after being scorned by Riley, but there’s a fine line between proving a point and doing what’s best for the program as it enters the SEC’s super conference.

To fire Venables after the 2023 season would cost Oklahoma roughly $29,400,000. That would set a record for the largest buyout ever paid to a head coach (Gus Malzahn currently leads at $21.5 million). That’s because per The Athletic, Venables signed a fully guaranteed contract worth $43.5 million over 6 years.

Venables’ buyout after …

  • 2023: $29,400,000
  • 2024: $22,200,000
  • 2025: $14,900,000

There’s a reason Power 5 coaches are rarely fired in the midst of a disappointing Year 2. At the same time, Oklahoma has never had to pay a head coach buyout in the 21st century. We’re talking about a program with deep enough pockets to join forces with Texas to fork over a $100 million buyout for their early entry into the SEC. Venables shouldn’t be considered completely safe, but the more likely path following a disappointing season would be for him to enter 2024 firmly on the hot seat with a potential $22,200,000 buyout after 2024.

That’s a different story than Sarkisian, who also has a fully guaranteed contract but is a year further into his deal with less annual base pay than Venables.

Barring any sort of restructured contract prior to 2023, it would cost Texas roughly $18 million to fire Sarkisian after 2023 (original terms via AP).

Sarkisian buyout after …

  • 2023: $18,000,000
  • 2024: $12,200,000
  • 2025: $6,200,000

That’s in the neighborhood of the $15.4 million buyout that Tom Herman got after the 2020 season, though the more important number was the $24 million it took to also take care of his staff. The Longhorns will spend to move on from a coach if deemed necessary. That much we know. That $18 million buyout number won’t be a deal-breaker if Sarkisian takes a significant step back in 2023.

What could be Sarkisian’s most crucial card to play is Arch Manning. His willingness to stay at Texas could be tied to the offensive-minded head coach that he signed up to play for. The former 5-star quarterback could be the “yeah, but” for any Texas struggles in 2023. As in, “Texas once again couldn’t get into the Playoff conversation, yeah, but wait until Manning gets to run Sarkisian’s offense for a full season in 2024.” Of course, that scenario would likely imply struggles from a pre-NFL Draft Quinn Ewers and a Texas offense that ranks No. 3 in FBS in percentage of returning production, which wouldn’t bode well for Sarkisian’s short- or long-term future in Austin.

Keep all of that in mind because there’s a chance that you’ll see both Sarkisian and Venables on preseason “hot-seat lists.” Any discussion about the pressure they face should also include their buyouts and what it means from a perception standpoint to have instability at this critical juncture.

The 2009 season was the last time that either team played in a national championship. Oklahoma has certainly been much closer to that feat than Texas, who lost at least 4 games in each non-shortened season (that excludes a 7-3 mark in 2020) after that runner-up finish in 2009. There’s angst among both programs. You could make the case that both are entering the SEC at a rather unstable time in their respective histories. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make early waves. Look at the last SEC newcomers.

In Year 1 in the SEC after 1 AP Top 25 finish in the 21st century, Texas A&M gave us the Johnny Manziel season, which included the unforgettable win against Alabama in Tuscaloosa en route to the program’s best AP Top 25 finish since the Paul “Bear” Bryant era. In Year 2 and 3 in the SEC, Mizzou won the East. A&M and Mizzou accomplished those feats with coaches at totally different stages of their careers. Kevin Sumlin was the up-and-comer in Year 1 while Gary Pinkel was established as one of the nation’s better coaches more than a decade into his tenure at Mizzou.

There’s no set blueprint for how one should enter a conference. And as we saw with how A&M and Mizzou faded into the middle of the SEC pack after their blistering starts in the conference, sustaining success isn’t guaranteed, no matter how much you spend.

Oklahoma and Texas could, at some point in the next year or 2, make the decision to fork over an 8-figure paycheck to buy out their head coach. The motive will be rooted in a desire to maintain competitiveness in the yearly gauntlet that they signed up for.

It’d be surprising if either Sarkisian or Venables failed to get even a taste of what that pressure is like as an SEC head coach.

But don’t get it twisted — the clock is ticking as their SEC entries loom.