Bronco Mendenhall made a bone-headed blunder the other night against Boise State, going for two points and a lead instead of kicking a PAT and settling for a 7-7 tie with 3:37 left in the game.
The reason he gave for the gamble: momentum. The reason that was a dumb decision: BYU had the advantage in an overtime situation because the Broncos couldn’t score a touchdown against BYU’s defense — the lone Boise score came on a pick six — and they had so little confidence in their kicker that they ice-boxed him early in the game, opting to repeatedly go for it on fourth down. They were 0 for 5 on those attempts.
If that single mistake stood by itself in Mendenhall’s tenure as coach, or even if it was one of a handful of flubs on his part, it might be easily overlooked, especially given the coach’s overall win-loss record. But there have been many errors committed and failures perpetrated by him in his eight seasons at BYU, a lot of them obvious slips a seasoned man of good judgment should have been able to avoid, without having to learn lessons the hardest way.
If a coach’s judgment is impaired, that’s a big issue. Whether he’s defensive or offensive minded doesn’t matter. He has to have the mental wherewithal, the clarity, to quickly grasp situations and then make decisions based on sound thinking. That too often isn’t the case with Mendenhall.
And if BYU really wants to accomplish the lofty national goals of which the coach so often has spoken, the school has to consider whether Mendenhall is the man who can get it there. He hauled the program out of the Crowton competitive-and-behavioral abyss, but the success BYU football has enjoyed since that time has come mostly at the expense of lousy opponents on consistently weak schedules.
The Mendenhall blooper reel started before he ever coached a game for the Cougars, when he cracked open a Book of Mormon at a news conference as a means of getting a point across. He read a scriptural account of Captain Moroni, an ancient leader who rallied his people around the cause of liberty, stirring them to defend their freedoms and their religious beliefs against their enemies, by lifting a banner called the “Title of Liberty.”
The coach then unveiled new Cougar helmets and uniforms, likening them to Captain Moroni’s flag.
This, of course, didn’t go over all that well with LDS Church members who rooted for teams from other schools. Bronco’s response: “I didn’t mean a religious connection.”
Everyone else’s response: “Uuuhh.”
The bad decisions on the field came soon thereafter, like in his first game coaching at LaVell’s Stadium, a loss to Boston College in which he chose to punt on fourth-and-3 from BC’s 36-yard line down by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The missteps marched ahead, through subsequent winning seasons, when the Cougars seemed good enough to make some national noise, only to suffer crushing defeat in a couple games here and a couple games there. They were good, never great, even though they might have been great.
There were quests for perfection that turned nice W-L numbers into dark disappointment. Remember the game against Florida State at home in 2009 that devolved into a 54-28 fiasco? Just as bad was Mendenhall’s goofy response to it. He said: “I was disappointed with our loss, but after watching the film, I’m as or more optimistic than ever about our football team and our future and reaching our goals.”
He later shot criticism back at anyone who shot criticism at him, particularly BYU’s fans, saying: “The level of criticism usually matches the level of education and the fans, the people it comes from.”
Meanwhile, Mendenhall’s teams, with a few exceptions, kept beating mediocre-to-bad opponents and losing to good ones. This is especially true over the past couple of seasons, including the current one, where losses to Utah, Texas, TCU and Boise State came consistently, while faux season-savors such as Idaho State, UNLV, Wyoming, San Jose State and New Mexico State polished the dog excrement.
The coach has a losing record in important games against noteworthy opponents, as well as a lopsidedly losing record against ranked teams. He has a killer record against everybody else.
He’s talked about winning national championships, but served up coaching bungles in the form of allowing quarterback indecision to rot through his team, once settling for a two-quarterback system that everybody but him knew was doomed from the start. He later admitted it was a mistake. At other positions, he’s allowed open competition to spill from fall practices into the regular season, unsettling and ticking off some of his starters.
He’s uttered lines about not ever worrying about what opponents do, concentrating instead on his own team, but then been slow to make in-game adjustments necessary for a better result.
He’s picked sometimes odd, awkward moments to show strong emotion to his team and then in others been as excitable as a dead possum on a county two-lane.
Bronco allowed his offensive coaches to flub up twice at critical times in BYU’s 17-16 loss at Utah two seasons ago. The first came when the Cougars were at the Ute 14-yard line when they threw a pass that fell to the turf on fourth-and-inches. On that one, even long-time assistant Lance Reynolds was stunned: “We should have kicked it,” he said. “I have no idea what the thinking was there.” On the second, Jake Heaps drove the offense on a deep last-minute drive, but rather than go for better position or perhaps a touchdown, coaches had Heaps fiddle around to set up a long field-goal attempt, which was famously blocked.
Once asked about vetoing decisions made by his offensive coordinator, Mendenhall said he never had overruled any of them — ever. Ultimately, the head coach is paid for his sound judgment, right?
He shouldn’t be paying so much attention to his role as defensive coordinator to mess over the whole team, especially when he has an inexperienced offensive coordinator. And he shouldn’t allow his love for gutty players — read: Riley Nelson — to cloud decisions on who should play and who shouldn’t. Nelson never was going to be a great BYU quarterback, and Mendenhall should have recognized that long ago.
Before this season started, Brandon Doman noted that BYU’s coaches had realized they needed to start working harder. “Our coaching staff has stepped up the urgency,” he said.
Question: What took so long?
Maybe BYU is satisfied with its current condition, being good, but never great. If it is, fine. Own it. Admit it. Live with it. If it isn’t, you have to wonder if the coach the Cougars have is the one who will make the difference.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.