Even after all these years, it was weird seeing Bronco Mendenhall take the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium, wearing a Virginia sweatshirt, standing on the visitors’ sideline, coaching the Cavaliers against the BYU Cougars.
Weirdness was everywhere on Saturday night, inside and out of the game. How about a 42-38 score … at the half? More than 800 yards of offense in those first two quarters? A 66-49 final score and 1,322 yards gained by game’s end? Tyler Allgeier with 266 rushing yards and five touchdowns?
“A great team win,” Allgeier said postgame.
Maybe there really is an I in team after all.
Weird. Weird. Wonderfully weird.
But then, Bronco was always the King of Weird in Provo, even, especially, when he was on the other sideline. And that was OK, too.
It’s not meant as a criticism, even if some will take it as such. Those days are long gone. It’s a funny memory now. It’s just the way Mendenhall was when he ran the BYU program, what with the scripture quoting, the infusion of religion into football, the reliance on principles of modern management, the awkward demeanor, the comparing of his players to the Stripling Warriors. All of it was his peculiar interpretation of what he thought BYU’s bosses wanted him to be — half coach, half bishop.
Some of it was/is simply Mendenhall’s way.
(Remember when he took over at BYU, when he had his entire team lay down on the same field he walked on Saturday night, telling his players to allow visions of past success at BYU to wash over them, to engulf them, to soak in so much proud — and temporarily lost — tradition, to use all of it as motivation.)
Yeah, well, now, he’s just a coach, a really good one, as it turns out, and a bit less weird. A bit. You can take the coach out of the weirdness, but you can’t remove it completely from the coach.
Again, not meant as a criticism, just an observation.
The man was appreciated here, in part because his teams did their share of winning, and he did get a hug from Kalani Sitake upon his return, and a nice ovation from the crowd.
Mendenhall did leave a mark.
One of the first conversations I ever had with Bronco, back before he ascended from being the Cougars’ defensive coordinator to their head coach, he said some things that stood out.
For instance, his description of his defensive philosophy was … well, all Bronco.
“I call it, ‘Complete Disruption,’” he said. “We want to disrupt everything an offense tries to do. Most of them are based on timing and rhythm. They don’t like playing against [my] style of defense. If they can’t identify what you are doing and where you’re coming from, their chances of being successful on any given play are limited.
“When we played UCLA [at New Mexico, where Mendenhall previously had been D-coordinator], not one of our guys would have been recruited to their program, but we limited them to 167 yards. That’s complete disruption. It’s not as much about the schemes as it is about the effort and the attitude, the mindset. I want to develop at BYU a combination of collective consciousness of effort and competitive spirit.”
Nobody had ever heard a football coach cram together in one sentence the words “collective consciousness of effort and competitive spirit” before Bronco did it.
The fact that he used other clunky language fit right into the … weirdness.
Phrases like “position mastery,” and “position solidification,” and “program failure,” and “pride cycle,” and “diligence and consistency,” and “higher level of execution,” and “quest for perfection,” and “band of brothers,” and “spirit, honor, tradition,” became commonplace.
Uh-huh. You remember.
There were the firesides, the football-is-fifth stuff, the empty talk about winning national championships.
Amid that same initial conversation, he said: “All I want the guys to know is, I’m out here to work. I consider myself intelligent, but I can’t find the words to convey to them [all] those kinds of things. They have to see it in me. How can the coach not be emotional and disruptive? I’m kind of saying to them, ‘Follow me.’”
That’s pretty much the way it was for his 11 years as the Cougars’ mentor.
Since he arrived at Virginia — making more than twice what he was being paid in Provo — with a bunch of former BYU assistants before the 2016 season, when the Cavs commenced with a 2-10 record, Mendenhall has turned a mostly tepid program into a better one, winning a total of 36 games and losing 34.
Make it 36 and 35 now, after losing to the Cougars in the coach’s homecoming, ratcheting down this season’s record to 6-3.
Mendenhall has won over his team in Charlottesville with the same relentless attitude and work he demonstrated at BYU, where, even with his sometimes strange approach, his players took notice of the example he set and respected it.
What BYU had to do on Saturday night was outscore the Cavs, who have shown regular moments of explosiveness in 2021.
Speaking of unusual, that’s the way the initial margins went in this game, the late ones, too, what with BYU building a 21-zip lead inside the first seven minutes and then giving all of it away before the Cougars took it back near the end of the half, 38-35. And the Cavaliers took it right back, again, getting a touchdown with 22 seconds left in that second quarter.
Early on, Mendenhall’s defense, transferred as it had been some 2,000 miles to the east, not only looked as though it were Completely Disrupted, it actually was. And the problems had everything to do with the schemes, the effort, the attitude and the mindset.
Or the lack thereof.
Bronco’s newest version of that combination of collective consciousness of effort and competitive spirit had many holes blown into and through it — by an effective Cougars offensive line, the impressively brutish running of Allgeier, and Jaren Hall’s efficient play.
Next thing, all of it flipped.
And it was BYU’s defense that was hapless.
The Cavaliers offense made that Cougars resistance look sad, sorry and silly, comical, really. Virginia scored on six straight possessions through the second quarter, as BYU missed assignments, missed tackles, missed the boat.
Weirdness was everywhere.
That 42-38 score at the break was a full game’s worth of attack.
But there was so much more to come.
A BYU touchdown … a missed BYU field goal … a Virginia TD … a BYU score … a Virginia fumble … a BYU touchdown … a BYU interception … a BYU touchdown …
Is that enough? It was plenty.
A few additional things: First, Allgeier is a remarkable running back, Mendenhall’s kind of player — a walk-on who made something big out of himself. Kalani Sitake’s kind of player, too. Second, overall, as mentioned, defense on both sides took a whupping on this occasion, but the Cougars regrouped when that regrouping was needed. Third, and most significant, BYU long ago moved past Bronco Mendenhall.
The former coach did what he did in Provo, and the program is firmly Sitake’s now. Until Mendenhall walked into LaVell’s Place on Saturday night, strange as that was, he and his image were sort of vapor at BYU.
A 99-43 mark in the mist.
The Cougars are different than they once were. They aren’t as weird, but they are in good, steady hands. They aren’t a band of brothers, but they are a football family. Winning at BYU — against better competition — seems as normal now as it’s been in a long, long time.