Provo • Contract talks between BYU and football coach Bronco Mendenhall never got acrimonious last spring before he signed the extension that will take him through the 2016 season, but Mendenhall made a point of stressing one of his accomplishments in particular.
His bowl record.
The nine-year head coach is 6-2 in bowls, having won four straight, as the Cougars (8-4) head into what Mendenhall is calling the toughest one yet, Friday’s Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco against 8-4 Washington (7:30 p.m. MST, ESPN).
“Yeah, I am,” Mendenhall said Thursday when asked if he’s proud of his bowl record.
That came after the coach was asked whether the 6-2 record — far better than legendary coach LaVell Edwards’ 7-14-1 record in postseason games — was a part of his contract talks.
“There is a confidentiality clause, so I really can’t talk about my contract other than [to say] I believe in incentives,” Mendenhall said.
The coach is also proud of the fact that he’s 3-2 against Pac-12 teams in bowl games, and says Washington — despite having an interim coach, just as UCLA did in 2007 when the Cougars edged the Bruins 17-16 in the Las Vegas Bowl — will be the second-best opponent the Cougars will play this year, behind only Wisconsin.
“I think we need to prepare for them like they are going to be at their best,” Mendenhall said. “Anything less than that will be a surprise. Man, they have good players. The four teams they have lost to are all top-20 teams. … It will be the best bowl opponent [BYU has played since 2005], and that’s fun. I like playing better opponents.”
A case could be made that there are more bowls now than when Edwards coached the Cougars, and easier bowl opponents as a result, but Mendenhall’s ability to reverse the trend of winning just a third of those postseason games is noteworthy, nonetheless.
How has he done it?
“Emphasis,” he said. “There is a choice most of us [coaches] must make. Is it a reward? Or is it a proving ground?”
Mendenhall said he tries to give players a mixture of both, but has erred on the side of bowls being a proving ground for players.
“And whether that’s appreciated during the time [they are preparing], I don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully, it is when they leave, to have good memories in their last game. We have won six of eight. My regret is that we haven’t won eight of eight. So I have made it clear, I want to win the game, for the program, and for them.”
Senior defensive tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna has been a part of three of those bowl wins, including the aforementioned victory over UCLA when he blocked a last-second field goal attempt six years ago, before his church mission.
Mendenhall “knows how to prepare for bowl games, postseason,” Manumaleuna said. “He has a bag of tricks, and he knows what he needs to do to prepare us for a big game like this.”
Linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga has seen the bowl success as a player and an assistant coach. He said Mendenhall’s oft-criticized model of resting more than practicing has proved successful time and again. The Cougars have practiced just three times in Provo since beating Nevada 28-23 back on Nov. 30. They will travel to San Francisco on Sunday and practice just three times in the Bay Area — at Laney College in Oakland — before Friday’s game.
“Really, just time off [is the secret],” Poppinga said. “I think a lot of people kind of complain about that on the outside, but really I think that has been to our advantage — getting guys fresh, getting them healthy again. They were very eager to practice the last few days, missing football a little bit.”
The Fight Hunger Bowl represents a first for a Mendenhall-coached bowl team because the Cougars haven’t had to spend Christmas at the bowl site, like they will this year.
Safety Daniel Sorensen and linebacker Kyle Van Noy said the coach has been a master at allowing the players to have fun at the bowl site with their families, yet buckle down when the time to work comes.
“He has a lot of confidence in us as players to know that when it is time to work, we work, and when it is time to relax and enjoy it, that we can play around a little bit,” Sorensen said. “He does a good job of balancing the two things. … When we get there we will keep working, and when we have some time to relax, we will do that, too.”
BYU’s bowl games under Bronco Mendenhall
Year Bowl game Result
2005 Las Vegas California 35, BYU 28
2006 Las Vegas BYU 38, Oregon 8
2007 Las Vegas BYU 17, UCLA 16
2008 Las Vegas Arizona 31, BYU 21
2009 Las Vegas BYU 44, Oregon State 20
2010 New Mexico BYU 52, UTEP 24
2011 Armed Forces BYU 24, Tulsa 21
2012 Poinsettia BYU 23, San Diego State 6