Once dead set against it, Bronco Mendenhall is finally ready to play BYU in Provo

The Virginia coach had a successful 13-year career at BYU — including 11 as head coach

FILE - Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall directs his players during the second half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Clemson in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. One year after dynamic quarterback Bryce Perkins led Virginia to its first Coastal Division title in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a trip to the Orange Bowl, the Cavaliers will put Bronco Mendenhall’s new standard to a big test this season.(AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

When Bronco Mendenhall left BYU in 2015 — after 11 seasons as head coach — he made it immediately clear that he didn’t want to come back.

He made that statement during the news conference on the day it was announced he was leaving BYU for the same job at the University of Virginia, knowing then that the Cougars were already on his new school’s schedule.

”I don’t want to play BYU and I don’t know how I’d handle it,” Mendenhall said. “If it’s up to me, I don’t want that to happen because this is the place that shaped and had such an influence on my life that I don’t see how that could happen and I hope it doesn’t.”

It’s happening.

Six years after leaving Provo, Mendenhall is set to make his return to LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday to take on BYU.

BYU and Virginia were originally scheduled to play in 2019, but that game got pushed back to 2021, and have two more games on deck — in 2023 in Charlottesville and 2025 in Provo.

And it seems now that Mendenhall has finally accepted his fate.

“I’m much better now because very few of any players [I recruited] are left,” Mendenhall said. “Brigham Young University’s quarterback Jaren Hall — I recruited him, but there’s very few on the roster that I remember. That makes it easier. Not easy, but easier.”

Along with Hall, there are a handful of other current BYU players that were recruited by Mendenhall before his departure, including defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua and wide receiver Neil Pau’u.

“I know I’m one of the few on the team that actually was recruited by Bronco,” Leiataua said. “I don’t think anyone’s actually played under Bronco here. I love Bronco, I love his staff, but this is our team now. I love [current head coach] Kalani [Sitake]. I love everything he’s done here, for my last few years here. So I’m just excited to play against him. It’ll be fun to see, that’s for sure.”

While the former BYU coach still has relationships in Provo, he’s not expecting a warm reception. However the fans in Provo react, the Cougars’ former coach said it will be all business for him and the Cavaliers Saturday.

“This is just about two teams trying to play well and to have great seasons,” Mendenhall said. “Anything more than that or to spend more time or energy or effort into that — even though I know that’s probably a topic; I can’t say it can’t be acknowledged — but any acknowledgment gives kind of takes away from the other part, and that’s really paramount. So I’m trying to keep the focus there and will.”

If anyone can understand Mendenhall’s journey, it’s Sitake.

Both men served as defensive coordinators prior to taking their first head coaching gig at BYU. Mendenhall was at the helm when the Cougars left the Mountain West Conference and entered independence. Sitake will lead the Cougars through the end of independence and into the Big 12 conference.

“I have tons of respect for Bronco Mendenhall and what he’s done here at BYU,” Sitake said. “The type of man that he is, the leader that he is, he produces great people in his football programs. It’s been a pleasure for me to be here and to take over as a new head coach in a program that he established and laid the foundation and was able to really do some great things [with]. So I have some deep appreciation and gratitude to him.”

Mendenhall led BYU to 11 consecutive bowl invitations, five 10-win seasons, and a 99-43 record — second-most wins in BYU history.

“BYU is near and dear to my heart,” Mendenhall said. “They gave me an opportunity to be a head coach. Thirteen years I was at Brigham Young University. My father played there, my brother played there. I lived close by. So, it’s an amazing experience to now be able to return.”