Dec. 6, 2015
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As midnight approached on Nov. 10, 2007, there was every reason to believe prosperity lay ahead for the University of Virginia football program. At the Orange Bowl that night, the Cavaliers had routed Miami 48-0 on national television, raising their record to 9-2 and moving to the brink of the ACC championship game.
Since that masterpiece in South Florida, however, UVA football has been adrift. The Wahoos closed 2007 with two straight losses — the first to Virginia Tech, the second to Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl — and subsequent seasons have brought more misfortune for the program.
The `Hoos have lost 64 of 99 games since their rout of the Hurricanes. Only once in the past eight seasons has UVA finished with a winning record (and played in a bowl game): in 2011.
To revive a program that once ranked among the ACC’s finest, Virginia has turned to Bronco Mendenhall, the head coach at Brigham Young University for the past 11 seasons. He’ll be introduced as UVA’s 40th head football coach Monday morning at John Paul Jones Arena.
A free video stream of Mendenhall’s press conference will be available here Monday at 10 a.m.
At BYU, Mendenhall has compiled a 99-42 record. Will he achieve similar success at the University? There are few sure things in sports, but his rÃ©sumÃ© suggests Mendenhall is fully capable of thriving in Charlottesville as he did in Provo, Utah.
When he was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach at BYU on Dec. 13, 2004, Mendenhall took the reins of a program that, in the previous three seasons, had finished 5-7, 4-8 and 5-6.
The Cougars’ fortunes turned quickly. Only once in their 11 seasons under Mendenhall have the Cougars not posted a winning record: in 2005, when they finished 6-6. BYU is headed to a bowl for the 11th straight season.
“Virginia reminds me a lot of BYU when I was named the head coach here,” Mendenhall said. “I see tremendous chance for growth and opportunity, and I like to build. I like challenge. I like growth. I like learning, and I see a fantastic chance and opportunity with real and tangible results that can happen, and I’m passionate to help the student-athletes, the players there, experience that.”
Virginia finished 4-8 this season, its sixth under head coach Mike London, who succeeded Al Groh in December 2009. Away from Scott Stadium, the `Hoos have not won a game since Nov. 3, 2012.
Still, hope is not lost in the McCue Center. Of the Cavaliers’ defeats this season, three were by seven points, one was by six, and one was by three, and a solid nucleus of players is expected back in 2016, led by quarterback Matt Johns, tailback Taquan Mizzell, wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding.
So Mendenhall will start from a good place in a program whose players are starved for sustained success.
“I would love to have that team see what it feels like to win and win a lot, and get great grades, and learn and grow as people,” Mendenhall said. “I’m anxious for that to happen, and I see that capability, and I like that opportunity.”
Mendenhall, 49, made those comments Friday night during a press conference in Provo. At his side was BYU’s athletic director Tom Holmoe, and it was striking to see the palpable bond between the two men, even in the wake of Mendenhall’s stunning decision to leave BYU.
“He will not soon be forgotten,” Holmoe said.
Rest assured, not every such relationship remains intact when a successful head coach leaves for another school.
“People have asked me for years, `What kind of a football coach is he? Could he coach somewhere else?’ ” Holmoe said. “Yes, he could coach somewhere else. He’s a very, very good football coach.”
During Mendenhall’s 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach, “lives have changed,” Holmoe said. “He’s influenced in such a positive way so many of our student-athletes.
“So much of Coach’s production is not on the field, and that’s the part that the fans, the public, never really get to see. So much of what he’s done here can’t be said. You can’t report it. Those are probably the most valuable talents that Bronco possesses, those one-on-one, behind-the-scene experiences. At this time I’m really supportive of him in this new adventure that he has.”
For Mendenhall and his family — wife Holly and their sons, Cutter, Breaker and Raeder — that adventure will begin in earnest in about two weeks.
He’ll meet his new team Monday morning in Charlottesville before heading over to JPJ for his introductory press conference. By Monday night, Mendenhall will be back in Provo, and on Dec. 19 he’ll coach the Cougars (9-3) one last time, against arch-rival Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“I want to finish with this team,” Mendenhall said.
As striking as Holmoe’s unequivocal support for Mendenhall’s decision were the comments of the BYU players who spoke at the Friday night press conference. That group included senior wide receiver Mitch Mathews.
“One of the first things that I thought after hearing the news from Coach Mendenhall was, `I can’t wait to play in the bowl game, because of how hard we’re going to fight for this guy,’ ” Mathews said.
“That is something that will happen. There’ll be a new level of fight in us for Coach Mendenhall … We want this guy to get that win, and we want to send him out that way.”
Mendenhall could have remained at BYU, where he’s had five seasons of at least 10 victories (and can make it six with win over Utah on Dec. 19). The opportunity at Virginia, however, proved irresistible to him.
“It’s just time,” Mendenhall said. “I’ve been so fortunate [at BYU], and we’ve won so many games and there’s been so many challenges … I’m ready for a different and unique and fierce challenge, and to help other players.”