There was the clunky verbiage. The awkward demeanor. The reliance on principles of modern management. The mixing of scripture with the playbook, the Stripling Warriors with the tackles and tight ends. The spoken-but-silly aim for a national championship. There was Honor, Spirit, Tradition. The insistence on his players lying on the field, way back at the beginning, allowing visions of by-gone triumphs to dance in their heads, stirring their souls and stoking their motivation. There was the band of brothers, the quest for perfection.
Bronco Mendenhall did some weird things at BYU.
But he’s doing something even weirder now — he’s winning at Virginia.
Turns out, Mendenhall is one helluva football coach.
There were indications of competence with the Cougars. The man’s teams won 99 games and lost just 43 during his time in Provo. He loaded pride back into a program that had lost it via the decline under LaVell’s replacement, Gary Crowton. He restored the winning.
But what he’s done since taking over in Charlottesville — the biggest challenge, he’s called it, that he’s ever faced — along with a staff made up largely of former BYU assistants, has some people’s mouths agape, their minds blown.
And Mendenhall loves it.
Just like half the football-playing free world, he’s said: “We’re establishing a culture here.”
In his first season (2016), Virginia went 2-10. The next year, it was 6-7. The next, 8-5. This season, 9-5, one of those wins coming against Virginia Tech, for the first time in 15 tries.
Not bad for Thomas Jefferson’s nerdy basketball school.
The ACC is a basketball conference, too, right? Clemson has other ideas. And the closest thing in that league to the Tigers now is … wow, lookee here, Bronco’s Cavaliers. The gap is still wide, but the Cavs are stretching and clawing to close it.
This past season, the one in which Clemson continues to carry the ACC’s flag into the national championship game against LSU, UVA won the league’s Coastal division, while the Tigers took care of the other half. They met for the conference championship, with the Wahoos losing, 62-17.
Still, the fact that Virginia was even at that level, having qualified for the Orange Bowl, where it lost to Florida in a valid, worthy match, is a testament to Mendenhall’s capacities as a head coach.
Nobody does that at Virginia.
Cavaliers football is where coaches go to collect paychecks — Mendenhall is making $3.4 million, more than double what he made at BYU — and die.
“Thinking about all the years coach Mendenhall has been here, and I was here for two of them, every year the unbroken growth of this team and this spirit, and the bond with this team is unmatched, and the relations we’ve built,” senior quarterback Bryce Perkins recently told reporters. “You can see it on the field just how hard we fight for each other.”
Much like what he did at BYU, Bronco has poured new life into a sagging program. The difference, as mentioned, is that Virginia didn’t have much of a tradition to begin with. If Mendenhall had repeated at Scott Stadium what he did at LaVell Edwards Stadium just over a decade earlier when he took over as head coach — the stunt where he had padded-up players lie down on the field and think about the legacy they were called to continue — there wouldn’t have been much to reflect upon.
The best thing the Cavs could do with their past is forget it.
And form a new foundation.
Mendenhall rightfully has gotten much of the credit for the transformation.
When he left Provo, he told some of his players that he craved the challenge of building something out of situations that are “unique.” And Virginia, with its academic standards and general lack of football tradition, provided that, just as academic and honor code hurdles did at BYU.
The same characteristics he used with the Cougars are working for him now. He has high expectations, made more real for his players by his own relentless work. His defensive prowess, with complex schemes, is evident. He runs the same tight ship he did at BYU, managing his captaincy of the program as much as barking from it. He embraces the role of the gritty, plucky underdog, looking to shock the world.
Or at least to capture its imagination.
And so he has.
It was just a year-and-a-half ago when Mendenhall said Virginia football had a mere 27 ACC-caliber athletes on its roster. Remember that blunt bit of honesty? And he also said he was looking to schedule the weakest P5 non-conference opposition he could find.
“I want to play the worst power-five team(s) that we can play,” he said.
Seventeen wins later, Mendenhall likely has more confidence in his outfit’s ability to compete.
After losing to Florida, 36-28, in the bowl game, he said:
“I’m really proud of my team, the culture that we’ve established, the competitive spirit, the intensity and the camaraderie that’s displayed from beginning to end. We’re on a mission to just simply establish that you can have world-class academics and be at the top tier of college football, as well. That’s what’s happening at the University of Virginia. We were a few plays short today in our execution to win the game, but it was not because of a lack of belief or confidence or ability.”
With Mendenhall, it always comes down to execution, a higher level of it.
A level he and his team are reaching 2,000 miles away from Provo, at a place that used to be all about basketball, on ground Thomas Jefferson called home.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.