Bronco Mendenhall has often spoken of “winning the hearts and minds of his players,” a mantra he adopted from organizational guru and author Paul Gustavson.
Mendenhall has captured the hearts and minds of his men at all of his varsity football stages: Oregon State, Snow College, Northern Arizona, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico and BYU as a defensive coach, BYU and Virginia as a head coach with his commitment to accountability and teamwork structure.
Winning the fans in Provo took time – some would say he never really did that – and Mendenhall faces another tough job in Charlottesville. At BYU, the challenge was glory; At Virginia, it was more about ensuring consistency and taking it to the next level.
Cavaliers’ men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett is the standard of excellence in sports in Charlottesville. Football has always failed and fans are less inclined to believe that the program will be good every year.
Damon Dillman is the editor of CavsCorner, which covers Virginia football. He said no one had any idea Mendenhall was going to replace Mike London, who was 27-46 in his six years at the helm, in 2016.
“No one saw that name coming,” Dillman said. “We were hearing Mac Brown, Mark Richt, Jeff Brohm, Matt Wells… a lot of hot names as part of the coaching cycle that year. And then ‘Boom’ there was. Players, media and fans, everyone was in shock and jostling each other.
Virginia had beaten the Cougars and Mendenhall in Charlottesville in 2013 and some of the players wondered, “Is this an improvement?
Last summer, Dillman wrote a fascinating three-part series titled “Setting the Standard: An Oral History” on Mendenhall’s early years reviving the Virginia program. Player interviews paint a sober picture of Mendenhall destroying players to build them his own way.
Mendenhall had a different task ahead of him as the Cavaliers hadn’t had much success before. He removed the logos and numbers from the players’ training equipment and told them they had to earn those privileges.
Right after hiring Mendenhall, he spoke to fans in Virginia at halftime of a men’s basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena.
“His big closing remark was, ‘I’m not used to being home for bowling season.’ He was telling fans to be ready to go to a bowl game and it got a big reaction, ”Dillman said.
Of course, the Cavaliers lost their home opener to Richmond and only went 2-10 in 2016.
“I think it gave Bronco a different perspective on the challenge of winning here,” added Dillman.
Mendenhall also had his missteps at BYU with the slogan “Quest for Perfection” which became a strike line in 2008 and the “Tradition, Spirit and Honor” uniform fiasco in 2013.
Ideas well intentioned but difficult to deliver.
Virginia’s Mendenhall team came in at 6-6 in 2017 and won a trip to the Military Bowl. Virginia was 8-5 in 2018 and won the Belk Bowl. In 2019, the Cavaliers won the ACC Coastal, qualified for the Orange Bowl and finished 9-5.
The 2020 coronavirus season saw Virginia post a 5-5 record and this season the Cavs are 6-2 heading into what amounts to a reunion match against No.25 BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday.
As for the rest of the former BYU coaches who left for Charlottesville with Mendenhall, it looks more like the same. Defensive coordinator Nick Howell still more or less ignores interview requests – Dillman said the first chance the media had to speak to Howell was in the fourth year before the Orange Bowl – and offensive coordinator Robert Anae is still a enigma with its appeal to offensive play.
“It drives people crazy,” Dillman said. “On paper, the seasons of Brennan Armstrong and Dontayvion Wicks, those numbers really jump out at you. But if you watch the games in real time, there are some situations where Anae won’t throw the ball. His tendencies at the start of his tenure were that he spent a lot of screen passes that everyone saw coming. It has a way of pissing off the fans.
“But in the quarterback’s record books, all the guys have done well since he’s been here. Kurt Benkert was Virginia’s first quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards, then Bryce Perkins broke his total offense record in just two years and now Armstrong is also in a position to set records.
When Mendenhall took over at BYU in 2015, he kept players busy with team activities like Y-hike and super games, competitions that put a strain on them both mentally and physically.
Former Cougar Cameron Jensen has witnessed Mendenhall’s transition from defensive coordinator to head coach as team captain.
“When I think back to what he was able to do after three lost seasons, he really changed the mindset of the team,” said Jensen. “We were more consistent and he was bringing back the old BYU. He brought back the blue and white and the Y stretch. I mean, he was the guy at that point in the program. I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the things they were doing in the locker room, going up to the Y, the great games, and changing the locations of people’s lockers.
“He loves the construction part, following a program and developing it. He knows how to do that, how to get the right players to buy into the team’s goals. It creates a purpose and a mindset that gets everyone going in the same direction.
Harvey Unga played for Mendenhall (2006-09) and is now BYU’s running backs coach.
“It’s a bit unreal,” admitted Unga. “My first year, we had an exit interview. We were talking about my goals and plans for the future when football was over. I told him I wanted to train. Fast forward and here I do what I told him I wanted to do. Not only that, but I can train against him.
Unga said capturing the hearts and minds of players is about creating culture.
“At first I was curious what he was doing,” Unga said. “We did a lot of team building activities in the offseason which was just painful. They were grueling and excruciating. At the end of the day, it was largely he who taught us to be there for each other. “Band of Brothers” is a term that has emerged. To this day, I feel like I’m among the players of a brotherhood who have played under Bronco.
“Bronco is a great person, a role model and someone I appreciate. Over the past few years, I have randomly received a text from Bronco on my birthday. It shocked me a bit because I don’t even know how he knows it’s my birthday. It may not seem like much, but it goes a long way. I can’t wait to see him and the rest of the crew. I have a bunch of former teammates and coaches of mine on this team. “
There has been a lot of discussion on social media about the type of reception Mendenhall will receive on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“I expect nothing less than a standing ovation,” Jensen said. “What he did during his tenure, he gave all he could to BYU while he was there. He worked extremely hard. I’m grateful for that. He averaged nine wins. , went to bowl games and left BYU much better than he found him to be. I’ll stand up because he deserves it for what he did.
ROSS D. FRANKLIN, Associated PressBYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, center, receives hugs from players Brian Logan, left, and Matt Marshall in the dying seconds of the New Mexico Bowl college football game on Saturday December 18, 2010 in Albuquerque, NM BYU beat UTEP 52-24.