Will Venable: From Princeton-Penn to Red Sox-Yankees

Will Venable surveys the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor during Princeton’s battle versus Duke on Jan. 5, 2005. | Photo by Beverly Schaefer

Editor’s note: Ivy Hoops Online contributor Erica Denhoff caught up with former Princeton hoops great Will Venable, who just finished his first season as Boston Red Sox bench coach and reflected on a remarkable two-sport career and Ivy League basketball’s place in it.  

Will Venable, Princeton ‘05, shines brightest on the biggest stages.

Against JJ Redick-led No. 5 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 5, 2005, Venable, a senior guard, played 39 minutes and put on an offensive skills clinic. He scored 21 points, dished out three assists and collected four rebounds in a 59-46 loss for the Tigers. Venable’s athletic defensive play came to the fore as he stole the ball three times from the Blue Devils.

“Venable was terrific tonight,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ” … He is a heck of a competitor, in the Ivy League or any league.”

“As we go into our league play, I know that Will Venable is going to give me that 100 percent effort for 40 minutes every single night,” then-Princeton coach Joe Scott said.

Almost one month to the day later, Venable demonstrated both coaches described him accurately.

Feb. 9, 2005 brought one of the most memorable games in the Penn-Princeton men’s basketball rivalry. The Quakers won the game in overtime after going on a 35-9 run. It was one of the most intense, loudest, and hard-fought games that many people in attendance that night ever watched. Venable played all 45 minutes in that game. His line on the stat sheet read 12 points, six assists, three rebounds and three steals. With around two minutes remaining in regulation, the Quakers on a 15-2 run, applied a stifling full-court press and double-teamed Venable in the corner. Venable threw a Hail Mary pass to reach his teammate. His teammate caught it but unfortunately traveled, and the ball went back to Penn.

Throughout his 45 minutes, Venable gave 100% effort and did everything in his power to propel Princeton to the win. But basketball is a team sport, and one person alone cannot do it all.

But if anyone has come close to “doing it all,” it’s Will Venable. He excelled as a two-sport athlete for the Tigers. He was a first-team All-Ivy selection as a junior when he led Princeton to March Madness and posted 16 points and eight rebounds against Texas in a first-round loss. As a senior, he was named second-team All-Ivy as he traded first-team All-Ivy League in hoops for first-team All-Ivy League in baseball. He also played in the NCAA baseball tournament in his sophomore and junior years.

Managing two sports

Venable is the second player in Ivy League history to be first-team All-Ivy in baseball and basketball. Basketball and baseball demand different methods of training, and some may struggle with playing both sports. Venable found a way to succeed in both.

One of basketball’s greatest players of all time, Michael Jordan, retired from professional basketball in 1993 and played minor league baseball for the Double-A minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. In the documentary The Last Dance, Jordan described basketball and baseball as requiring two completely different methods of training. Jordan struggled with the adjustment to baseball training. His trainer said baseball would be detrimental to his basketball skills.

But Will Venable saw the connection between the sports differently.

Venable focused on training for athleticism – namely the ability to be quick and to stop and start just like on the basketball court.

“I knew [that] was going to help me as a baseball player, too,” Venable said.

Venable blended his workout habits out of necessity because he valued playing both sports at the Division I level. He was cognizant that laser focus on one sport would take away from the other, so he made sure he did the best he could in managing his time and energy.

After graduation, Venable made the difficult decision to close the door on playing basketball and pursue professional baseball.

“Ultimately I knew that my ceiling in basketball was going to end before the NBA,” Venable said. “I was not quite sure how far I could get in baseball, but I was confident I could play in the major leagues one day having watched my dad go through the process and understanding what Major League Baseball is all about.”

Venable recalled there were difficult times during his minor and major league career when he wished he had pursued basketball, although he never seriously considered pivoting into professional hoops.

The California native’s decision worked out well for him as he rose quickly through the minor leagues and made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres in August 2008. He finished his career in the big leagues with 3,146 plate appearances, 707 hits, 307 RBI, scored 378 runs (81 which were home runs) and stole 135 bases.

Venable hung up his spikes for the final time in 2016. He then accomplished what many strive for but few get.

Transition to coaching

It is rare for retired players to get a big-league job without spending years working in the minors. Likewise, many minor league coaches or managers never set foot working in a big-league clubhouse, even if they are successful in the minors and highly respected by big-league front offices.

Will Venable is cut from a different cloth. In 2017, he worked as special assistant to Yale graduate and then-Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein. The next two years he coached on the field as the first-base coach of the Chicago Cubs. Then in 2020, he served as the team’s third-base coach for the team. After the 2020 season, he became the Boston Red Sox bench coach.

The Boston Red Sox had a successful 2021 season. They made it to Game 6 of the American League Championship Series after eliminating the archrival New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game and the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Division Series.

“Amazing,” Venable said of the season. “It was an unbelievable opportunity to be up close and personal alongside Alex Cora, who is a great manager.”

For Venable, the 2021 campaign brought a new organization, new people, new relationships to be forged and a new role in baseball. Venable described his responsibility as “scheduling the day-to-day operations of the club and making sure everybody was in the right place at the right time and doing the right things.”

In August, Venable tested positive for COVID-19 while in Toronto for a series against the Blue Jays. He quarantined in his hotel room away from the team for two weeks.

As with many of the world’s professionals, he adjusted to working remotely. The Sox use a mobile platform that allowed him to send daily messages to the team and make sure everyone and everything stayed organized.

“Technology really allowed me to continue most of my work from a different country in a hotel room … A lot of what I do is connecting with players on the field. However, between scheduling the day-to-day operations of the club and communicating the messages I need to communicate and the research component of the advance scouting work on opponents, I could do that remotely with the assistance of technology.”

As Red Sox bench coach, Venable can see the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry up close and personal.

The usually mild-mannered coach was so emotional arguing a call during a critical at-bat at Yankee Stadium on July 17 that he was ejected from the game. Venable makes comparisons between the Penn-Princeton and Red Sox-Yankees rivalries.

“It is fun to be able to see those battles play out and this year it was cool to be able to have that opportunity with the Red Sox to see the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry up close, and then to win the American League Wild Card game against the Yankees was amazing,” Venable said.

Managing the grind

Venable draws a parallel between his duties as Red Sox bench coach and his time as a Princeton student-athlete. Time management and his ability to prioritize what is important each day are vital. As a multi-sport athlete, he learned how to structure his days.

“When you are at an Ivy League school it is because you have an incredible work ethic, you are intelligent, and can take a lot of responsibility on,” Venable noted. “But at the same time, you end up spreading yourself pretty thin with academics alone and then you start adding sports or multiple sports.”

After some trial and error, Venable found what worked for him.

“Sometimes that included taking a nap,” he remembered. “I did whatever it took to get through whatever I needed to do and make sure I was consuming the academic information I needed and at the same time taking care of my body. That was really important.

Venable suggests that current student-athletes must take care of their mind above all else.

“Make sure you are being kind to yourself and give yourself a break,” Venable said, warning that athletes must not overwork themselves and thus risk injuries and burnout.

Venable recalled that the eight-week Ivy League basketball schedule with back-to-back weekends prepared him for the rigors of professional baseball.

“When you think of the grind of a Major League Baseball season and what baseball throws at you, it is really dealing with failure, challenges, and fatigue,” Venable said. “And so any opportunity to practice that, which was certainly the case with my experience in college, where you have those back-to-back games and class and tests, and to have to summon the energy to get through those things and also have a positive frame of mind, to accomplish the things you want to accomplish, was definitely a trial run, a practice for what was to come in my professional career.”

Reflecting on the new 10-week Ivy conference schedule, Venable feels that the athletes will appreciate the bigger break to physically recover and catch their breath.

While Venable thinks the eight-week Ivy schedule was “a good crash course in the challenges that life throws at you when you are a professional in the professional world,” he added, “Maybe that can wait.”

“A couple [of] weekends where a student-athlete can catch their breath, get their body right, get their mind right, isn’t the worst thing,” Venable said.

Venable noted that some student-athletes this year may have another element added to their already full plate.

This year brings the NCAA’s new Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) policy allowing college athletes to profit from name, image and likeness opportunities.

Venable sees it as both a challenge and opportunity for student-athletes.

“If someone is going to pay you some money to do a little bit of work, you should absolutely find the best way to mix that into your student-athlete-life balance,” Venable said.

Love of the game

It is no surprise that Venable continues to fit basketball into his life.

Venable keeps an eye on the Tigers and roots for “Mitch and the guys.”

The successful Major League Baseball player and coach embodies the saying on a plaque that adorns a wall of the Palestra, where he battled on the court for four years as part of one of the most intense rivalries in college basketball: “To win the game is great … To play the game is greater … But to love the game is greatest of all.”

“Love watching it, miss playing it,” Venable said of basketball. “Definitely still a fan of the game.”