By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– As an assistant football coach at the United States Naval Academy, Jeff Monken learned quickly that one game mattered most: Navy’s annual battle with Army. And so when the U.S. Military Academy hired him as its head coach in December 2013, Monken was surprised by what he found––or, to be more precise, did not find––at West Point’s football facilities.
“When I got to the building for the first time, I didn’t see a single sign anywhere that said Beat Navy,” Monken recalled this week. “I shouldn’t say that. Our equipment manager had one up on his wall inside the equipment room, but not where the kids could see it.”
The situation soon changed. Within a few days, Beat Navy signs were posted “all over the place,” Monken said, “and they’re still up. They’re there 24/7, 365 days a year, and it’s a point of emphasis every day for us.”
When Monken arrived at West Point, Army had lost 12 games in a row to Navy. (For the first six of those Navy wins, Monken was an assistant on head coach Paul Johnson’s staff in Annapolis, Md.) The streak grew to 14 before the Black Knights broke through in 2016, defeating the Midshipmen 21-17 in Baltimore. A year later, Army edged Navy 14-13 in Philadelphia.
At the University of Virginia, head coach Bronco Mendenhall took note. When he came to UVA from Brigham Young University after the 2015 season, Mendenhall inherited a program that had lost 12 straight games to its biggest rival, Virginia Tech. After the streak grew to 14––the Cavaliers lost 52-10 at Lane Stadium in 2016 and 10-0 at Scott Stadium in 2017––Mendenhall looked outside of his program for ideas on how to stop the Hokies’ dominance.
“I was just scanning the world of college football and looking for rivalries that were of significance and were similar in terms of a reference point, and the Army-Navy game was the closest,” Mendenhall recalled this week. “And so I had a professional relationship with Army’s coach and reached out to him, just to talk about it and see what they had done in terms of strategy and/or culture and/or emphasis that he thought might have helped in [beating Navy].
“One of the points that came out of that conversation is that Army took an approach of just being very matter of fact about it, meaning that we not only know it’s important, but we’re going to say it’s important, and we’re going to emphasize it and post it everywhere.”
UVA embraced that approach in 2018. At the end of every offseason workout that year, the Cavaliers broke the huddle by shouting the same refrain––Beat Tech––and that was their rallying cry throughout spring practice and training camp. (Once the season began, the focus each week was on the next opponent.) Omnipresent on the lower two floors of the McCue Center––on computer screensavers, in the locker room, in Mendenhall’s office––were graphics bearing that same message.
“Beat Tech was everywhere,” recalled defensive lineman Eli Hanback, who was a redshirt junior in 2018. “It was plastered on the walls. Coach Mendenhall just emphasized that no matter how good we’re getting, it’s not OK that we keep losing to Tech. This needs to be our state.”
Hanback, who’s from the Richmond area, did not need convincing.
“Being from Virginia and growing up a Virginia fan, I knew how much I hated losing to Virginia Tech and how much Virginia fans in the community hate that,” Hanback said. “But I think the emphasis that Coach Mendenhall put on that really showed kids who were from out of state, who maybe didn’t really understand the rivalry so much to its core, how important it is and how [the losing streak] needed to end.”
Mendenhall said: “I liked the idea and it resonated with me, just acknowledging the brutal fact that one of the things that has to happen for this program to become healthy and vibrant, and for it to move forward, is we have to claim our own state through being successful in that game. And so rather than having our own staff and our own players wondering how important is, we were going to make it of the utmost importance in terms of messaging and culture.”
Ahmad Hawkins, who played for the Wahoos in the late 1990s, went 2-2 against the Hokies during his college career. He applauded Mendenhall’s new approach to the annual clash for the Commonwealth Cup.
“I loved it,” said Hawkins, who lives in Charlottesville and remains close to the UVA program. “It was one of the things that the fan base always had concerns about, because Bronco was considered an outsider coming from BYU. So seeing him understanding the importance of beating Virginia Tech was refreshing.”
Hawkins, who graduated from Hampton High School, played at UVA for Hall of Fame coach George Welsh (who, coincidentally, was a former Navy player and coach). Back then, native Virginians abounded on the Hoos’ roster, and “it was self-explanatory to beat Tech,” Hawkins said, “just because of where the recruits were coming from. You knew when you got to Virginia, you had to beat Virginia Tech. It was ingrained in you already.”
By stating their primary goal so publicly and so often in 2018, the Cavaliers called attention to the Hokies’ dominance in the series. But when weighing risk and reward, Mendenhall said, “I viewed it more that there was everything to gain, because we already looked bad enough, and the rivalry was one-sided, and the existing philosophy and clarity just weren’t in place at the level necessary to produce the result we all wanted.”
Mendenhall’s new strategy did not pay immediate dividends. In 2018, UVA rallied to take a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter at Lane Stadium, only to see Tech come back to win 34-31 in overtime.
For the Cavaliers, the loss was agonizing. Still, Hanback said, “I think that was the first time in a long time where people watching that game could really say, ‘Virginia let that one slip away.’ I think everyone knew that we should have won that game and we could have won that game. We just didn’t finish, and credit Virginia Tech, they did. But I think people that year knew that Virginia was ready to make its move.”
Mendenhall said: “I don’t necessarily believe in moral victories, but I do believe in progress, and there are ways to measure progress, even if it’s not a win. Arguably that game was one that we could have won, had every opportunity to win, and controlled at the end during the moments when it was really on the line. And so all that meant really to me was the approach certainly could work and if anything maybe needed to be enhanced even more.”
In 2019, then, Mendenhall made sure the signs stayed up and the mantra stayed the same for his program: Beat Tech.
“I’m glad that he drilled into our psyches how important that game is and what the outcome needs to be,” Hanback said, “because at the end of the day that’s the most important game we play all year. We want to win every game we play, but no matter what happens in our season we want to beat Virginia Tech, and they feel the same way about us.”
Everyone who follows UVA football––and Virginia Tech football, for that matter––knows what happened last season. On Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving, the Cavaliers rallied to defeat the Hokies 39-30 at Scott Stadium, their first win in the series since 2003. Hanback scored the game’s final points, recovering a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown with 1:01 to play.
“It’s like a burden taken off of us,” another defensive lineman Mandy Alonso, whose sack forced the decisive fumble, said after the game.
Monken could empathize. When Army defeated Navy in 2016, “there was a huge weight lifted off the shoulders of all of us,” he said. “We felt that burden, and we felt responsible, and a great sense of pride to win it.”
In 2018, Army extended its winning streak over Navy to three games. The Midshipmen ended their skid last season with a 31-7 victory in Philadelphia.
Monken, who’s close with UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae, remembers his phone conversation with Mendenhall.
“We talked about a lot of things in terms of philosophy, building a team, building toughness, building a sense of accountability and responsibility rather than a sense of entitlement,” Monken said. “He and I had a nice talk about that. He’s a remarkable football coach. He’s done a great job, and I really admire him and what he’s done.”
For UVA, one win over Virginia Tech, no matter how memorable, is not enough. The Cavaliers are scheduled to close the 2020 regular season Nov. 28 in Blacksburg, where they haven’t won since 1998. Hawkins, then a sophomore wide receiver, caught a 47-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Aaron Brooks with 2:01 remaining to cap Virginia’s epic comeback at Lane Stadium that year. (UVA, which trailed 29-7 at halftime, won 36-32.) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuekLDVJ7vg)
Not since 1997 and ’98 have the Hoos posted back-to-back victories in the series. And so the McCue Center clock that counts down the minutes until the longtime rivals’ next meeting keeps ticking, and Beat Tech graphics remain prominently displayed throughout the football facilities.
“The branding internally will remain the same,” Mendenhall said, “and the reality is, the challenge becomes more difficult, not less. The reality is that UVA hasn’t beaten Virginia Tech in Blacksburg for 22 years. We’re now taking on something that hasn’t been done in even a longer amount of time.
“When you haven’t beaten your rival back to back in 22 years, that’s another clear indicator of what the program has been, for whatever reasons, and now my job is [to change that]. And to not be clear and not be bold about it doesn’t really seem like that fits really well. This is as bold and as clear as I possibly can be.”
Four-plus years in, Mendenhall is no longer new to the University, the state, or the UVA-Tech rivalry. “What the community has made clear to me, what alumni have made clear to me, really what everyone else outside of the program has made clear to me, is that is the most important game,” he said.
On Thanksgiving weekend last year, Monken was an ocean away from Charlottesville, preparing for a game in Hawaii. But he saw the UVA-Tech score and was “certainly happy for Bronco and the staff,” Monken said.
Nobody has to tell him what a rivalry game means. That was clear from Monken’s sign-off in a phone interview this week: