Maybe some of the dumb things Bronco Mendenhall said at BYU were banging around inside his head, prompting and guiding his blunt remarks this past week at a Board of Visitors meeting at the University of Virginia.
Those comments caused a stir in Charlottesville and around college football, but were still classic Mendenhall, highfalutin in their values, weirdly opaque enough to be misinterpreted and clear enough to be seen as advantageous to his own preservation as head coach, a position that allows him to haul down $3.4 million in annual salary.
After seasons of 2-10 and 6-7, he said he had just “27 ACC-caliber players” left over on his roster at Virginia, hoping that number would bump up to the mid-40s when the 2018 recruits arrived on campus.
While Mendenhall was laying out a need for improved investment in football at the school, he also was using a quintessential tactic often authored by desperate coaches, implying that any success already achieved or to be achieved should be credited to the very adequate organization, innovation and motivation provided by the coaches. They are nobly battling through, in spite of the substandard material — the athletes, the facilities — they have to work with.
The further implication is that, although it is their responsibility, especially three years into a rebuild, to alter the bad mojo, to spot talent and draw it, to recruit top-drawer players, the coaches need more support — more money, more resources, better infrastructure — to have any chance at doing so, thereby removing some of their own accountability.
When the success of a program is under review, and a head coach speaks about its shortcomings, rarely do you hear him say, “Yeah, and we did a mediocre job recruiting and coaching the talent we had.”
Instead, you hear him talk about just 27 ACC-caliber players in the fold.
Mendenhall’s three recruiting classes at Virginia have hardly been impressive, ranking 13th, 12th and 11th in the ACC. Is that the program’s fault or Mendenhall’s?
He also said he would prefer to tamp down the schedule: “I want to play the worst Power-Five team that we can play. That’s what the ACC requires, you have to play one other Power-Five [among non-conference teams]. I want to find the worst one we can play, so we can get another win.”
He added: “I don’t want to go to Boise. I don’t want to go to UCLA. I don’t want to go to Oregon. I don’t want to go back to BYU. I’d rather them come here and lose.”
Those comments have been lambasted in some corners, praised in others, and seen, in yet others, as a reality for a rebuilding team that needs to gain momentum and learn how to win.
Mendenhall also pontificated about athletes who go on to play in the NFL, using loose statistics that demonstrated the risks of doing so: “I want them to pursue the NFL if they’re one of the 20 percent that are clear about what they’re going to do after, and have a great path and are going to become better because of the experience.”
He said 85 percent of players in the NFL come from single-parent homes, that 78 percent of them in their second contract “are divorced, bankrupt, a substance-abuser and disabled, all four.”
Those stats were sloppy, used to make his point, again, a classic Mendenhall morality lesson. In his remarks to the board, he mentioned his mission statement, seeking the best for his players.
Look, the man cares about his guys. He wants them to succeed. He wants them to be educated. He wants them to reflect positively on the University of Virginia. But he also wants to buy time and get the advantages he needs to keep his job. He’s not Father Flanagan. He’s a good, solid football coach.
How is all of this connected to BYU?
In Provo, Mendenhall took over after the Gary Crowton years, when the Cougars suffered three straight losing seasons. He proceeded to go 6-6, 11-2, 11-2, 10-3, 11-2, 7-6, 10-3, 8-5, 8-5, 8-5, 9-4.
He used Mountain West schedules to bolster those early records, and then, when the schedules in independence toughened, he could never match the earlier so-called success. Which is to say, he gained his momentum and then he lost it.
Perception is a funny thing. And perhaps BYU now — facing a much tougher overall schedule — could learn from past examples that fans get pretty excited about a lopsidedly-winning season, even if a good number of those victories come against lousy or mediocre competition. Coach LaVell Edwards built BYU’s football reputation — and its large stadium — on beating a lot of teams that weren’t that good, with an occasional win over a quality program. His bowl record, with an uptick in competition, was 7-14-1, bearing that out.
Back to Mendenhall. When he was at BYU, he spoke with the same kind of awkward bluntness he used at Virigina on Friday. But instead of tamping down expectations in Provo, he did the opposite. He ratcheted them up, in comical ways. He talked about winning national championships, even as his teams’ success, perceived and otherwise, dropped. He talked as though the Cougars had some kind of manifest destiny on their side and in their future.
BYU did not. They hung in.
He learned from that. There is no hint of manifest destiny at Virginia. Just a hope that those 27 ACC-caliber players will turn into 45, and then 65, then 85, and then … well, then, if the resources are better, the facilities are better, the investment on the part of administrators and boosters and fans is better, then maybe good things will happen.
At BYU, Mendenhall said that while the Cougars couldn’t match the speed and athleticism of some of their opponents, they could overcome that deficit with conscientious, hard-working players, plucky, determined players, who listened to their fine coaches and executed an innovative game plan at a higher level.
The theme of working with substandard players has swirled around this coach for quite a while.
What he sometimes forgot back in the day was that programs with top-level talent, talent that also was plucky and determined, also had enlightened coaches. They all could execute at a higher level, too.
He seems to be remembering that now.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.