Dec. 7, 2015
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not long after sunrise on Monday, members of the University of Virginia football team gathered at the McCue Center to meet their new head coach. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes, and by the end UVA’s players had a clear idea of the high standards to which Bronco Mendenhall will hold them.
“There were kids that were maybe a little scared,” quarterback Matt Johns recalled, “and kids that are eager.”
Mendenhall, 49, will demand accountability, discipline and effort at UVA, as he has at Brigham Young University, where his record in 11 seasons as head coach is 99-42, with 11 bowl appearances.
“Whether we like it or not, it’s what we need,” wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus said. “Personally, I feel like I’ll respond to the challenge well, but I need to bring along everybody else too, and that goes along with accountability and effort and discipline. We just need everybody on board.”
At 10 a.m. Monday, Mendenhall and his family — his wife, Holly, and their sons, Cutter, Breaker and Raeder — were introduced during a press conference at John Paul Jones Arena. For the next 13 days, he’ll be overseeing two teams, but after the Dec. 19 Las Vegas Bowl, in which BYU (9-3) meets arch-rival Utah (9-3) — his focus solely will be on the Wahoos.
At Virginia, he’s taking over a program that has finished with a losing record in seven of the past eight seasons. The `Hoos were 4-8 this season, their sixth under head coach Mike London, but that didn’t deter Mendenhall.
For him to leave BYU, Mendenhall said, it “did take something special, because I’m motivated by purpose, and I’m motivated by principle, and there has to be more than just football to do that. I love challenge. I love opportunity. I love growth. I love continued progress, and I saw every one of those things as a possibility here.
“Challenge, no question. Possibilities, endless. Opportunity, no question. A chance to make a difference, absolutely, while developing student-athletes at an institution that embraces fantastic standards, which I love, and I would not have considered it without all of that.”
Among those in the audience Monday at JPJ was George Welsh, the winningest football coach in UVA history. One of the peers Welsh most admired during his tenure was LaVell Edwards, who had an illustrious run as BYU’s head coach. Both were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
“I considered myself the steward over [Edwards’] program, and I did everything possible to grow and expand and develop it,” said Mendenhall, who smiled when he mentioned meeting Welsh.
“I wanted him to be proud of me, Coach Edwards, a Hall of Fame head coach. That wasn’t the primary motive, but I did want his approval in what he saw happen, not only on the field but the integrity in which the program was run, the relationships that were formed with the players, and the holistic approach of representing an institution that was very unique.”
Mendenhall wants to make Welsh proud too, and his record at BYU suggests he may well be able to do so.
After Edwards retired, Gary Crowton took over and went 12-2 in 2001, his first season as the Cougars’ head coach. But BYU finished 5-7, 4-8 and 5-6 in the next three seasons, after which Mendenhall was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach. He never had a losing season at BYU, but a larger rebuilding projects awaits him at UVA.
“I love challenge,” Mendenhall said. “After visiting with the team today, it became very clear today that that’s what this team needs, and I think for the most part wants. We’ll find that out once the challenge starts, but I think that’s what they do want. I think they’re hungry for success, and I believe I specialize in accountability and discipline and effort. I’m an effort-based coach. I love more than anything guys that try hard. I relish in that.
“I celebrate effort. Very few people try as hard as they can at any one moment of their life, and when you do, you recognize it when it happens, and first and foremost, we will develop the will of our student-athletes. Skill will come along, the position mastery will come along, the execution will come along, but only after they learn to try hard. I don’t know how long that will take … But this will be sequential, planned and progressive, not only on a daily basis but a yearly basis to reach our potential.”
A new building to replace the McCue Center, in which the football program is based, would accelerate the process, Mendenhall said.
“If we are serious, and I am, about not taking a backseat to anybody, then a new facility for football specifically is paramount, as a visible and tangible sign that we are serious,” Mendenhall said. “It’s not necessary to win. I’ll be working like crazy along the way, but if we truly want this to be exceptional and uncompromised, that would be a huge help.”
Mendenhall said loves the phrase Uncompromised Excellence, “because we’re not going to compromise anything. I like the idea of `and,’ not `or.’ We will have fantastic students, fantastic people and a fantastic football team, and it’s not `or.’ You’re not going to just have academics or football, and it won’t just be football or character, and it won’t just be character or being woven into the fabric of our community. It’ll be `and.’ I want all of that.”
Also speaking at the press conference were athletics director Craig Littlepage, UVA president Teresa Sullivan, and Bill Goodwin, rector of the University’s Board of Visitors.
When UVA administrators met face to face with Mendenhall last week, Littlepage said, “we listened and listened intently as he talked about his vision, he talked about a strategic plan. He talked about successful leadership in organizations actually outside of sports and outside of football, and then he was able to connect and translate all those things into how that would help in terms of developing a successful football program.”
Littlepage said he came away from the interview impressed by Mendenhall’s integrity. Moreover, the coach was “humble, inquisitive, well-read, data-driven, intelligent, innovative, hard-working, purposeful — everything has a purpose — [and focused on] continual improvement,” Littlepage said. “And then, finally, competitive.”
UVA’s academic standards, which some critics contend are an impediment to success in football, attracted Mendenhall and his wife.
“The value of education is paramount to us, and where better to come if the value of education is something that is the core of what and who we are?” Mendenhall said. “Where else would you go? Especially when you can consider now growth and opportunity and a challenge in blending a career, football and family with the value of education and developing well-rounded young people, including my own, it made perfect sense to us. There would be very few places I would leave BYU for.”
Mendenhall loves surfing, fly-fishing and riding his Harley-Davidson. His passion for football was unmistakable when he met with Virginia’s players Monday morning.
“He was a really energetic kind of guy,” offensive tackle Eric Smith said. “He kept a smile on his face, but you could definitely sense the urgency. He knows what he wants, which is good for us. He knows what he wants very early. I feel like as soon as he’s done with his BYU obligations, he’s going to come attack his task here at Virginia.”
This was a whirlwind visit for Mendenhall, who arrived in Charlottesville on Sunday afternoon and flew back to Utah after the press conference Monday to resume preparations for the Las Vegas Bowl.
“The best part of this trip was seeing the team,” Mendenhall said at JPJ. “I have a lot better idea now of what this team needs, how I can help, and what’s possible. I didn’t know when I first started talking to them, but I started to get a very clear idea at the end, and I encouraged them to train over the break.”
The players would be wise to heed that suggestion. That the Cavaliers’ winter conditioning program will be grueling was clear from Mendenhall’s remarks at the team meeting.
“We actually counted,” Smith said, smiling. “He said the word `train’ about four times in the meeting, and this was all within a minute. We definitely know where his mind is. We’re definitely going to have to prepare more than we have in previous years in the offseason.”
“Train, train and train some more,” Mizzell said.
“Train, train, train, is what we gotta do to be the best,” Blanding said.
BYU and UVA have met twice in recent years. In 2013, the `Hoos opened the season by rallying for a 19-16 victory over the Cougars in a rain-delayed game at Scott Stadium. In 2014, BYU defeated Virginia 41-33 in Provo, Utah.
“They were the hardest-hitting team that I’ve played to this day,” Johns said of the Cougars.
Mendenhall said he’ll oversee the Cavaliers’ defense, and that was welcome news to safety Kelvin Rainey.
BYU defenders are “strong, fast, nasty guys,” Rainey said. “They get after it. That’s the type of defense that we like around here.”
When he’s not preparing BYU for its bowl game, Mendenhall will be contacting UVA recruits and assembling his new staff. When the players return to Charlottesville after the holiday break, they should be ready to work.
“I cannot wait for the first day of workouts, and I believe in actions more than words,” Mendenhall said. “I’ve talked a lot today. They’ll know more about me, and I will certainly know more about them when I see what they’re willing to do, and it will be will over skill to start.”