Bronco Mendenhall just isn’t like other football coaches.
In his second year at Virginia, he takes a deeply intellectual approach to the game — he’s often exchanging books and reading recommendations with his players — but it’s not his singular obsession. A devout Mormon, he doesn’t work on Sunday other than stopping on his way home from church to check on Cavaliers receiving medical treatment.
He rarely curses and mostly speaks in a calm, measured tone, but he’s not a afraid to live a bit dangerously with a Harley Davidson, a surfboard and often aggressive play calling. And just a few months ago Virginia fans had serious doubt whether any of it made him a good fit in Charlottesville.
After a 2-10 debut season, wide swaths of Cavaliers faithful dismissed his tactics as gimmicks — naming the scout team the Victory team, creating a lottery system for players to earn jersey numbers, limiting access to facilities until players learned his preferred methods of preparation — and looked for reasons why a man who won 99 games in 11 years at BYU couldn’t do the same at UVa.
But here was the thing: the Virginia players were buying in. Big time. All-American linebacker Micah Kiser was recruited by former coach Mike London’s staff and remembers a completely different atmosphere, particularly when he redshirted his first year on campus.
“I didn’t like it at first because I didn’t feel like I was part of the team,” Kiser said. “There was no victory team, there was no ‘you get to earn your number this week.’ I would go to practice and that was it. Looking at it now and having an extra year, I wish a guy like (recently graduated) Zach Bradshaw could be here and enjoy it with me.”
Now, the Virginia program that has had just one winning season in the past nine, heads to Louisville looking for a seventh victory that would assure better than .500 record.
Two years ago, Mendenhall was a surprising hire. He’d spent his entire career in the western half of the United States and as an LDS church member winning nine games a season it was something of a surprise he would leave BYU.
Some wondered if he could recruit on the East Coast, or if his player development would take a hit without Mormon missions allowing his athletes an extra year or two to mature. But it appears he’s already building a solid foundation at Virginia.
Seniors such as Kiser, quarterback Kurt Benkert and safety Quin Blanding are huge parts of the Cavaliers turnaround. But UVa has also listed as many as 37 freshmen and sophomores on its two-deep at times this season and several true freshmen have played key roles.
“I came to Virginia to help this program become a consistent winner and a sustainable program that people can be proud of,” Mendenhall said. “That benefits the community, and the university and the state. We’re still in the beginning stages, but some of the progress and returns are starting to show, and that’s gratifying.”
At this point, it’s hard to imagine the early concern over whether Mendenhall would fit in at Virginia. One doesn’t have to spend much time around the Cavaliers athletic complex, situated at the north end of what Thomas Jefferson named The Grounds, to notice the striking similarities between Bronco Mendenhall, basketball coach Tony Bennett and national championship baseball coach Brian O’Connor.
All three men were hired by recently retired athletic director Craig Littlepage and all demonstrate a calm presence and refusal to cut corners.
This summer, Mendenhall stood outside the Virginia locker room, across an artificial turf field from a new indoor practice facility, discussed his unique theory on redshirting players. He’s made it clear that just because one doesn’t play as a freshman doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a redshirt season. A fifth year in the program has to be earned by being on track to earn a degree in four years and enroll in grad school.
That’s a striking stance to take in the ACC, where multiple athletic departments have been enveloped in major scandals, some including academic fraud. But whether he’s catching a wave or calling a fade route to the end zone on 3rd-and-2, Bronco Mendenhall does things his own way.
And it’s working.
Shane Mettlen is a veteran journalist who lives in Virginia and also writes for The ACC Sports Journal. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneMettlen