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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– At 8 p.m. Friday, No. 20 Virginia plays Coastal Division rival Miami in an ACC football game. At about 5:45 p.m., the Cavaliers will board their buses for the 25-minute drive to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Before they depart, the Wahoos will meet in one of their hotel’s ballrooms and hear a brief message. It won’t come from head coach Bronco Mendenhall. One of UVA’s three captains –– Bryce Perkins, Jordan Mack or Bryce Hall –– will deliver it.
“It’s their program,” said Mendenhall, who’s in his fourth year at Virginia.
Mendenhall, who was BYU’s head coach for 11 seasons before coming to UVA, has a passion for developing individuals, and he empowers his players to make decisions affecting many aspects of the program.
“I know he’s big on leadership development, so I think he just gives us opportunities to lead within football,” said Charles Snowden, a junior linebacker.
Mendenhall said: “The idea simply is, I like the idea of delegating and providing leadership opportunities as much as possible. Say this is the head coach’s plate” –– he pointed to a table in his McCue Center office –– “I try to get as much off it as possible, so the only thing that I have remaining to do is competitive work. Then that allows me to help our team at the highest level with the time that I have.”
The Cavaliers have 10 task-unit leaders –– Perkins, Mack, Hall, Snowden, Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Terrell Jana, Tanner Cowley, Nick Grant, Darrius Bratton, and Eli Hanback –– and each has an assistant. Rob Snyder is paired with Perkins, Ryan Nelson with Mack, Lamont Atkins with Hall, Chris Glaser with Snowden, Richard Burney with Reinkensmeyer, Matt Gahm with Jana, Joey Blount with Cowley, Joe Reed with Grant, Hasise Dubois with Bratton, and Chris Sharp with Hanback.
Working together, they determine the order in which players select their jersey numbers, choose the movie that’s shown the night before a game, pick the color combination of the uniform UVA will wear in a given game, recognize teammates for their effort in practice, and decide which players make up the four special-teams units: kickoff, kickoff return, punt, and punt return.
“There’s responsibility there,” said Hall, a senior cornerback, “and it shows the level of trust that Coach Mendenhall has and what he sees in us and our potential to be really good leaders. I know he emphasizes it, because at the end of the day the players have the most influence over the team, more so than coaches. So he’s been doing a really good job of putting us in positions to go outside of our comfort zone and demonstrate leadership, and I think that’s helped our team, because when it’s coming from another player, I think it can mean a lot more than maybe from a coach.”
On Sept. 28, Hall spoke to the team before the Hoos left for their game at Notre Dame and “did a really masterful job,” Mendenhall said. “As we were walking out, the coaches were saying, ‘That’s impressive.’ More often than not, that’s what happens. When we give our players a chance to demonstrate who they are, very seldom is the response that they’re not ready.”
In 2012, a book on Mendenhall, written by Paul Gustavson and Alyson Von Feldt and titled Running Into the Wind: 5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team, was published. Mendenhall has been heavily influenced by another book Gustavson co-wrote: A Team of Leaders, which focuses on ways to empower members of organizations “to take ownership, demonstrate initiative and deliver results.”
The book details a five-stage leadership model. Stage 1 is “really the one that is hierarchical,” Mendenhall said, “which means the leader disseminates all information to the students.”
In Stage II, the team leader is still in charge, but there’s interaction with team members. In Stage III, leadership begins to be shared among team members. The leader helps team members take on leadership roles.
In Stage IV, team members provide most of the leadership. The leader still assists team members, but he or she has more time to concentrate on other work.
Finally, in Stage V, leadership is shared among team members, allowing the team leader to focus on higher-level work while still being available to offer counsel as needed.
“The simple idea,” Mendenhall said, “is if you can teach correct principles, they can govern themselves.”
At BYU, Mendenhall said, he selected “special-teams captains, and they were not only involved with selecting personnel for their unit, but they were actually responsible for grading their peers and recommending changes [on the depth chart]. The coaches were handling the schematic part. But by the players doing that [personnel] part, the coach actually had more time to do his competitive work. What we found is the capturing of hearts and minds of players and people works really well with peer-to-peer leadership.”
At UVA, he’s followed a similar model. Hall is responsible for the kickoff unit, Jana for kickoff return, Snowden for punt, and Dubois for punt return. The Cavaliers’ scout-team players are known as Mad Hatters, and the standouts on those units are recognized at the end of a practice each week, usually on a Thursday.
Hall selects the Mad Hatter who’s performed best on kickoff return, because that’s the unit Hall competes against during special-teams periods. Jana does the same for kickoff, Snowden for punt return, and Dubois for punt.
“We definitely see our peers in a different light than the coaches do,” Snowden said. “The coaches kind of see football only. We know who’s coming back and getting in extra work, we know how guys carry themselves, we know how invested they are.”
If a player recognized for his excellence as a Mad Hatter doesn’t already have a jersey number, he gets to pick one.
“I think it means more [coming from peers],” said Jana, a junior wide receiver. “I know one of our receivers, Josh Clifford, he didn’t earn a number [during training camp], but he was working his tail off all summer, and he’s somebody who embodies UVA football. He didn’t make enough plays on the field to get a number going into the first couple of games, and this was an opportunity for him to get a number, and he ended up getting it the second week.
“The first week I [recognized another Mad Hatter], and he told me, ‘I’m going to get it next week,’ and he showed it in how he performed. And he was going against me, so it made my job that much harder and improved my preparation going into the week, so it was something I was grateful for, him going that hard.”
Ricky Brumfield is the Cavaliers’ special-teams coordinator. He provides input as needed, but the special-teams captains have almost complete autonomy in selecting the players for their units.
“I think you care more about it when your name is on it, and you’re seen as the leader,” Hall said, “and so there’s more of a passion and desire for that certain special team to do well. This is the first year I’ve been on kickoff, and now I’m studying film and I’m trying to motivate and encourage guys when we’re out there in practice, really push them to take this thing seriously. And then I’m thinking, ‘OK, who could be on this team?’ It gives you a little bit of insight into how coaches think. And so I go through some of that, and I really choose wisely and I’m careful with who I want to represent the kickoff team. There’s ownership that comes with the special teams, and you care more.”
If a special-teams captain goes to Brumfield and wants to remove a player from the unit’s lineup, Snowden said, “we have full autonomy to really kind of do that and replace him if we see fit. I’ll meet with Coach Brum and talk about how we can move guys around and plug guys in here and there.”
A player who starts on offense or defense can be used on a maximum of two special-teams units, Mendenhall said, but otherwise the special-teams captains “have autonomy within the existing pool.”
From conversations with friends who play on other college teams, Jana said, “I realize that our program’s pretty different.”
Mendenhall said: “I think mostly what prevents [other coaches] from taking this approach is ego, and maybe social norms. But again, I really like the idea of building and developing people, so this is one of the ways that’s an authentic, tangible and evidence-driven way to show that it actually is happening.”
There’s more to come as Mendenhall builds his program at UVA. He expects his players’ responsibilities to increase in 2020 and beyond.
“So what’s happening now is, I would say, the beginning stages and the beginning phases of the expansion toward that,” Mendenhall said.