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Monson: Bronco's biggest blunder

Published September 16, 2010 6:28 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Bronco Mendenhall is a terrific college football coach. His record clearly demonstrates that and there is no arguing the fact here. He lifted BYU football out of a nadir during the Gary Crowton years and has put up 50 wins against just 16 losses in his five-plus seasons as head coach.

But he is not Saint Bronco. He is far from perfect.

The depth and breadth of his mistakes in regard to his botching of the Cougar quarterback situation leading up to and into this season has blown past silly straight to shocking.

Mendenhall couldn't have screwed this thing up any worse if he purposely set out to do so.

Here's a chronicle of his clumsy blunders:

He said, despite his past preference for naming a starter as soon as reasonable, for establishing an offensive leader the other players could look to and rally around, he would this time wait until the latest possible moment to designate a No. 1 quarterback, even if it meant the decision would spill over into and maybe even through the season.

Bad idea.

Live games were not the time to uncork an open tryout for a team's marquee position, and split the reps, especially not at BYU, where the quarterback is more than just a game manager, more than a coach's custodian, more than a plumber patching leaks and clearing pipes. It is the alpha and omega, the centerpiece, the foundation of Cougar football.

As Robbie Bosco once put it: "When you're the quarterback at BYU … everyone is looking at you. If you are a competitor at all, you take that and run with it. We're talking about being great here. That's defined by winning games when it's tough, with someone breathing down your neck, spitting blood in your face. You go home after that, look yourself in the mirror and you know that you did it. It's incredible. There's no greater feeling in college football than playing quarterback at BYU. … It's living up to the greats before you."

In other words, whoever plays quarterback for the Cougars had best have greatness somewhere in him, even if it is a few layers down. He can grow into that form, if he must, but the ceiling on talent needs to be high, otherwise, everybody's wasting his time.

Remember Bosco's words: "Everyone is looking at you."

If a quarterback has a serious limitation that cannot be mastered — say, for instance, he can't throw downfield — you can forget about success. It just won't work. It might work at Auburn or Nebraska or Virginia Tech, but it won't work at BYU.

Back to the misguided open tryout.

Mendenhall said himself before fall camp opened: "If you don't have a starter named, that means no one is playing at a level that makes him a starter."

The message sent to his team when both Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps were essentially named as co-starters was that neither was good enough to be the starter. It was a complete copout.

Another bad idea.

Even at a unique place like BYU, that deal was doomed, bound to cause division and doubt.

Confidence may be the single most important characteristic any athlete can have, especially a quarterback, and when the head coach doesn't name his guy, and, even worse, either comes up with or rubber stamps some cockamamie alternating QB plan, series by series, he screams to his team that he doesn't believe in either of them.

If the coach is short on confidence, how are the players supposed to be long on it?

Mendenhall showed a lack of leadership when he was indecisive in his choice. It seemed as though he was afraid to make the call, as though he didn't want to offend Nelson, who transferred from Utah State after his church mission and sat behind Max Hall last season, nor Heaps, who was the top high school quarterback recruit in the country.

So, he double-clutched, shredding all his gears.

He also double-spoke, praising the poise of the freshman, of whom he said he had to constantly remind himself that Heaps was a freshman, not a redshirt sophomore. But he also talked about preserving a new Bronco-ism, something he referred to as the "culture of the program."

"You have to protect the culture of the program, players who have been with you a long, long time, perhaps as long as three years, fighting from a walk-on spot to a special teams role and now get their chance but are going up against a talented true freshman," he said. "If you look at sheer investment and what's best for the culture of the team in place of performance, I usually err on that side. … I've had some bad experiences where I've ruined freshmen by playing them too early when they haven't invested the time."

The head coach appeared paralyzed, then, between a promising teenager and an inexperienced run-oriented, Rudy-type quarterback who had worked hard inside the program.

Mendenhall should have recalled Bosco's words.

Instead, he pussy-footed along in his fog.

He said in July that the burden of figuring it all out would be his to carry: "That's one of the reasons all the pressure falls with the office that I have."

That, however, is not what he said during his weekly news conference on Monday, after the bumbling two-quarterback mess led to a mere 88 passing yards in a 21-point loss at Air Force.

At the presser, he said he had pretty much stayed out of the decision-making loop, leaving the QB call to offensive assistants Robert Anae and Brandon Doman. He mentioned that he met with those assistants Monday morning — a rarity, he said — to help sort through the "big picture."

In a remarkable admission of detachment, Mendenhall responded to a question about his involvement in the whole matter by saying he possibly is "closer to having an opinion this week than I was the week before."

What?

He said the quarterbacks would no longer be shuffled, rather they would be used according to situation. That, of course, should have been the case from the outset. A 50-50 split was never going to work long-term, although Mendenhall had previously indicated that it could go that way all season.

The problem with Nelson is that he struggles to throw medium to deep routes and he's inclined to take off running, a tendency that ruptures the offense and sometimes causes his teammates to quit on plays.

The problem with Heaps is, although he's got talent, he's still young.

Mendenhall's allowing his assistants to bench the freshman after throwing an interception at Air Force was ludicrous. If there's a time not to bench a young player, it's right after he makes a mistake. It's like Jerry Sloan benching a rookie for missing a three-point shot. The importance of confidence, remember? He's got to play through it.

But the way this tryout was set up wasn't to reward the quarterback who played better, it was to toss aside the quarterback who played worse. Neither, it turned out, played better while forever waiting for the hammer to drop.

One last thing Mendenhall should have known: BYU isn't going to win a majority of games with an option attack. That's a nice off-speed pitch, but not a staple. The coach momentarily lost sight of the first of his Three. Word. Mantra. that has become holy scripture for Bronco-ball: Tradition. Spirit. Honor.

BYU football's tradition revolves around the forward pass. Short of extraordinary circumstances, goofing half the time with one quarterback, one offense that departs from that tradition, and then throwing in the other quarterback, the other half that continues it, robs the Cougars of their identity, of the connection to their past and the fulfillment of their potential.

That was the biggest blunder of all.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 The Zone. He can be reached at gmonson@sltrib.com.