PROVO — Every morning, the blond-haired boy arose in the predawn darkness to make the half-mile trip out to the barn near his parents' Alpine home. There, his father always had plenty of strenuous, unglamorous work for him to do.
Among the chores included cleaning manure out of the stalls, feeding the cows and horses, and hauling hay. They were big jobs for a small boy who was still in elementary school.
But Paul Mendenhall always had the utmost confidence in his son, Bronco, who accomplished every task with efficiency and meticulousness. "He's been an unusual young man since he was 7 or 8 years old," Paul says. "He has always been a very hard worker. I'd ask him to do things a grown man would do. He was extremely dependable. He always did it right. In the dead of winter, in two feet of snow, or in the heat of summer, It didn't matter. He never complained."
By the time he was in the fifth grade, Bronco was driving a pickup truck around the farm to perform various tasks — even though he wasn't tall enough to see over the top of the steering wheel.
"He'd say, 'Dad, I can't see,' " Paul recalls. "I'd say, 'C'mon, Bronco! Get going!' And he'd take off. I could tell him to do anything, and he'd do it. He'd give shots to the horses. If you do it in the wrong spot, it could kill the horse. After I showed him how to do it, I never worried about it with him. Bronco would have to clean the stall and remove the horse manure. Sometimes he'd get down on his hands and knees and pick up the pieces one by one. He wanted it to be perfect. It's a silly, little thing, but that carried on to big things. He's never satisfied with anything less than excellence in everything he does."
Every day after school, Bronco would return to the barn. Once inside, his eyes would gaze up at a white board filled with a list of chores his dad had scrawled on it. He was charged with major responsibilities related to the family business — caring for and training up to 20 horses worth a total of $400,000.
"My dad simply just expected it to be done, and there was never the thought of, 'I can't do this, I'm too little, I'm not yet old enough.' It was, just go do it," Mendenhall says. "He would leave sometimes for a week to 10 days at a time when I was in junior high school and I was responsible for running his share of the operation and going to school. I was just a little kid. But I never viewed myself like that because my parents didn't. My intention was always that whenever my parents came back, they would be very impressed. That was instilled early."
Is it any wonder, then, that Bronco Mendenhall, whom Brigham Young University promoted in December to be its 14th head football coach, oversees practices in the bitter cold wearing shorts? Is it any wonder he demands excellence, even perfection, from his players? Is it any wonder he preaches teamwork, discipline and effort? Is it any wonder that nobody has higher expectations for BYU's football program than he does?
Looking back, Mendenhall realizes he has been preparing his entire life for this mantle of leadership. "On-the job training for this position was, I think, happening since I was just a little boy," he says.
"He's always felt that it's been a calling he needs to do," Paul says.
No doubt, those lessons learned in childhood shaped him into the intense, no-nonsense, hard worker he is today. Now, at the relatively young age of 39, he carries a weighty responsibility on his shoulders. BYU is banking on Mendenhall to lead its once-renowned football program, mired in a streak of three straight losing seasons, back to glory. From the outside, this job, at times, may seem about as pleasant as cleaning horse manure from a barn.
One of the differences between now and then is that his performance won't be scrutinized only by his dad within the confines of a barn, but on a very public stage, LaVell Edwards Stadium, by thousands of fans and critics at BYU and beyond. There is super-sized pressure to succeed.
"I've been amazed at how far this responsibility reaches, in terms of those I'm accountable to — former players, former coaches, the institution, with its unique mission, and the (LDS) Church," Bronco says.
Observers might point out that he has never been a head coach before and that he is the second-youngest head coach in Division I football. In his coaching career, he's been involved in only one Division I bowl game.
Bronco admits there is plenty of work to do to point the program back in the right direction. Then again, he thrives on hard work. For him, this is a dream job and he is confident about what the results will be, in time.
"If you look at the mission statement that we came up with for the football program, I think we're the flag-bearer of the institution," he says. "I'm passionate about my faith and I'm passionate about principles of truth and virtue and character. Those things represent BYU and BYU's football program. We're on the front line, representing all of those things. I intend to carry that flag up high, not on the ground. If I do my job right, this place will be one of the most dominant programs in the country, as it once was."
When Gary Crowton resigned under pressure as BYU's football coach at a news conference on Dec. 1, 2004, Mendenhall stood by and cried.
Crowton had hired him before the 2003 season as BYU's defensive coordinator. It was Mendenhall's chance to return home, to Utah County, after years of moving around in the unstable world of coaching. He had left the same position with Mountain West Conference rival New Mexico because, in part, he wanted to be back close to his family. Crowton, the man who lured him to Provo, was a longtime friend, going back to the days when Mendenhall played at Snow College and Crowton was an assistant coach there.
And, of course, there was the goal of establishing a dominant defense at BYU. He and Crowton had coached together again at Louisiana Tech, with very good results.
It seemed like a perfect fit.
During his first two seasons as BYU's defensive coordinator, not only did the Cougar defense improve significantly, but Mendenhall also earned respect from media, players and fans alike with his straightforward, no-excuses approach.
Yet BYU stumbled to a third straight losing campaign with a 52-21 season-ending loss at Utah last November. When asked about the future of the program, he adamantly defended his boss, explaining that Crowton was the right man to lead BYU football.
A week-and-a-half later, Crowton stepped down. At the news conference, as Crowton spoke, tears streamed down Mendenhall's cheeks.
"I really thought he'd be given one more year," Mendenhall recalls. "I was saddened that this opportunity passed without him having accomplished what I knew he wanted to accomplish. I was also sad that I wasn't able to help any more than I did in helping him achieve those goals."
Almost immediately, BYU administrators asked Mendenhall to apply for the job, which he did, somewhat reluctantly at first. "It was very strange to me that I was being considered to replace him," Mendenhall says. "I didn't really know how to deal with that concept. When I came to BYU, it wasn't with the intention of being the head coach."
Still bothered by the administration's decision to let Crowton go, Mendenhall admits being "pretty abrasive" in the first round of interviews. "He's a very passionate guy. He didn't look at the big picture in those first interviews," says athletic director Tom Holmoe. "He answered questions as a defensive coordinator, not a head coach. I was confused because he was holding back. He didn't show everything he had. Bronco understands roles. He played the role of the defensive coordinator. He never tried to undermine (Crowton)."
Eventually, Mendenhall managed to see the big picture. "I felt like I was supposed to be the coach here," he says.
It took a little longer for BYU administrators to come to the same conclusion.
BYU offered the job first to Utah defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham. Mendenhall found out about it the same way almost everyone else did — via a television news report. "That in and of itself was a difficult experience," he says.
Mendenhall knew that if Whittingham accepted the offer to return to his alma mater, there would be no place for him at BYU. Certain that Whittingham would take the job, Mendenhall and his wife, Holly, sat down with their three young sons. "We told our boys we were getting ready to go to a new place," he says.
That place was Las Vegas. Mendenhall says he made only one phone call through the whole process, and that was to new UNLV head coach Mike Sanford, who had recently left Utah as its offensive coordinator. Mendenhall heard that Sanford was looking for a defensive coordinator and, soon, the interest was mutual.
Meanwhile, BYU's defensive players, who had come to respect and revere Mendenhall as a leader, were upset that the job hadn't been offered to him. Several players met with Holmoe and expressed support of their coach. Their point was, if you are looking for a defensive coach, why are you looking anywhere else?
"Whether that had an impact or not, it meant something to me for our players to make a stand," Mendenhall says.
When Whittingham announced he was staying at the U., Mendenhall was back in the running.
During the second round of interviews with Mendenhall, Holmoe noticed a dramatic change. "That second time around, it hit us that he was what we were looking for," Holmoe says. "We went down the checklist of qualities we wanted and he had a lot of them. In the second interview, he answered questions as a head coach. He came up with creative philosophies and styles. It wasn't exactly the way I had planned the search, but the right guy was right here. Sometimes you overlook what's right underneath your nose. I think that was the case with Bronco."
About the name. Paul and Lenore Mendenhall named their first three sons Mike, Mat and Marty. But when their fourth son was born, some six years after Marty, Paul had something different and distinctive in mind: Bronco.
"I felt the name would fit what he'd be like," Paul says. "It was inspiration."
"I didn't name him that," Bronco's mom says with a laugh. "We were at the dinner table one night and I was about ready to deliver. When that name came up, I said, 'Over my dead body.' But I was overruled."
Lenore also gave the boy two other names, just in case he didn't like Bronco. His full name is Marc Bronco Clay Mendenhall.
"My concern was that he could end up being a ballet dancer," she explains.
Turned out, she worried in vain. The name stuck like superglue, and it did, indeed, fit him. Still, when he was young, people frequently asked her, "What's his real name?"
When Mendenhall was a senior in high school, a Navy recruiter called the Mendenhall residence looking for a Marc Mendenhall. "I told him there was no one here by that name," she says. "It wasn't until later that I realized he was looking for Bronco. I had forgotten we had named him Marc."
Lenore says Bronco was an ideal child to raise. "He never got into mischief," she says. "He did everything well. He's not perfect, but he made very few mistakes."
For years, the Mendenhalls lived in Salt Lake City, where Paul worked as a real estate developer. The three oldest boys all graduated from East High School. When Bronco was in fifth grade, the family moved to Alpine, where, eventually, Paul taught him to train horses and together they showed them all over the country. "He has a real gift for that," says Paul, who played football at BYU in the 1950s. "He's an excellent rider and trainer."
Today, Mike, Mat and Marty look up to their little brother, Paul says. "It's funny, but even though Bronco is the youngest, he is the leader of the bunch. They all listen to him and they all respect him."
Bronco idolized Mat at an early age because he was a football player. Mat, who stands 6-foot-6, starred as a defensive lineman for BYU (1975-79) and went on to play for the Washington Redskins, who selected him in the second round of the NFL draft. Bronco was closest to Marty, who played at Snow College and Weber State and is a former Mr. Utah bodybuilder.
While Paul and Lenore are complete opposites, Bronco says, he benefited from their contrasting personalities and interests. "It's amazing. My dad is kind of this rough, gruff business-cowboy. My mom is very gracious. She is so strong in etiquette and manners. She's very sophisticated and involved in art and music and opera and symphony and culture."
Between the two, "there weren't many areas in my life where I didn't have real exacting points of reference of how to do it and do it correctly," he says.
Mendenhall's leadership abilities run in his DNA, too. His grandfather on his mom's side was a former presiding bishop of the LDS Church. His grandfather on his dad's side ran the labor missionary program for the church for a time and he was key in developing the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii.
Paul used to pull Bronco out of school to travel to BYU road games to watch Mat play. Though significantly smaller than Mat, Bronco longed to follow in his brother's footsteps and play in the NFL. When he wasn't doing chores at home, he was playing baseball or football.
At American Fork High School, Bronco excelled in both sports. "He was a very good student and he never missed summer workouts," says American Fork football coach Davis Knight. "As a senior, he was the team captain. He never looked for a shortcut. He had a fierce competitiveness. I don't remember him missing a practice or ever being late for one. If he ever got injured, he was the kind of kid who would spit on it, rub it and keep playing."
Knight's son, Brock, and Bronco were best friends. Knight would give them the keys to the high school gym on weekends and the pair would spend countless hours lifting weights and honing their athletic skills.
Weighing about 170 pounds, Mendenhall played tight end and linebacker for the Cavemen. As a senior, to his dismay, BYU did not offer him a scholarship. It was 1983, the year before the Cougars won the national championship.
The rejection stung. But, of course, Mendenhall turned that into motivation.
"It wasn't always my dream to play at BYU, but I was hopeful," he recalls. "I wasn't good enough. I was on a mission to prove that I was good enough."
Only one school offered him a football scholarship — Snow Junior College in Ephraim. Then-Badger coach Walt Criner met with Mendenhall at Knight's house. After that first meeting Criner told Knight, "That's the kid I want. That's the kid that's going to make a difference in Snow football."
Mendenhall enjoyed an impressive career in Ephraim. As a sophomore captain and two-year starter at cornerback, he helped lead the Badgers to the 1985 junior college national championship. Says current BYU assistant coach Paul Tidwell, who was the defensive coordinator at Snow at that time: "I remember he was the only cornerback who wore a neck roll. He liked to hit, I guess. He was a quiet leader. On weekends, he'd stay on campus and work out. He did extra lifting. He was the type of player you never had to worry about."
After he finished his career at Snow, Mendenhall received a number of scholarship offers. But, once again, none came from BYU. Rejected for a second time by the Cougars, Mendenhall signed with Oregon State. "One of my deciding factors in choosing Oregon State was that they were going to play BYU," Mendenhall says. "I had something to prove."
Sure enough, on Nov. 15, 1986, the Beavers came to Provo and handed the Cougars a 10-7 loss, with Mendenhall starting at safety. "That's one of the highlights of my career," he says. "It was gratifying for me, because BYU was the measuring stick. My hope is to return the program to be just that. If you beat BYU, it's a huge thing and quite an accomplishment."
Bronco had never planned on a coaching career, though he earned a degree in physical education from OSU. He was so focused on going to the NFL that he didn't consider other options.
"It never crossed my mind that I wouldn't go to the NFL," he says. "I tried hard and it meant a lot to me. I was fully invested, but, looking back, I wasn't a good enough player."
With his college eligibility exhausted, he tried out for NFL scouts, but no teams showed interest. When then-OSU coach Dave Kragthorpe asked him to be a graduate assistant, Mendenhall looked at it as another year to train for a shot at the NFL. During that time, he saw what coaching was all about. And he wasn't sure it was for him. Oregon State hadn't experienced a winning season in 26 years and he witnessed the coaches making tremendous sacrifices in exchange for few rewards, in terms of winning.
As his NFL dreams vaporized, Mendenhall tried to figure out what he would do with the rest of his life. In the meantime, coaching consumed him. He literally lived in his office at the Oregon State football complex the final six months to save money. Mendenhall had parked his car in the campus parking lot, then forgot all about it. "I hadn't driven it for six months," he remembers. "I reported my car stolen. The police found it. It was in the parking lot, covered with leaves, where I had left it."
After graduating with a master's degree from Oregon State, he had no job and coaching was the one thing he was qualified to do. Tidwell, who had been promoted as Snow's head coach, hired him as the Badgers' defensive coordinator. From there, he began his coaching journey, with stops at Northern Arizona, Oregon State, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico. As he learned and matured during those years, it became clear that Mendenhall possessed a gift for getting the most out of players, both on and off the field.
"One of the great experiences of my life was seeing young men come out of the ghettos of Chicago and Los Angeles and watching them play at New Mexico," Paul says. "We had parents come up to us and say, 'I don't know how your son has done it, but he's changed the life of our boy.' That's Bronco's goal, to change lives and help them excel. For him, it's not all about winning football games."
Being able to make an impact on young people encouraged Bronco to stick with coaching. "At some point, I had to decide why I was doing this," he says. "The conclusion is, I like to see kids try hard, I like to see them develop. I don't really coach for Saturdays. I coach for the day-to-day of watching them show up and do the best they can. That's what I gain the most satisfaction from. Once I came to that conclusion, I've been at peace with what I'm doing."
Mendenhall believes strongly in the warrior culture. As the defensive coordinator, he assigns his players to study various types of warriors, from Stripling Warriors in the LDS culture; to Samurai and Bushido Warriors in the Japanese culture; to the Maoris in the New Zealand culture.
He became fascinated with warriors because his father served two missions to New Zealand. "What I've learned through studying these cultures is, there's a tradition that's passed on from father to son, generation to generation of how they do things. It's a way of excellence and it's a lifestyle that's all-encompassing. They dedicate and devote their entire being to representing their people."
That's why Mendenhall has embraced the Cougars' rich football tradition, inviting former players back to campus to address the team. He expects his current players to understand, and uphold, this legacy.
Former BYU star and NFL Hall-of-Famer Steve Young dropped in one afternoon after practice recently. He's impressed with Mendenhall's approach. "Everyone knows Bronco's a great motivator and he's a fine coach," Young says. "Really, it's about getting wins. The foundation is here, the facilities are here. Recruiting looks like it's going well. Bronco can do the job. Everybody expects significant improvement. He's taken the challenge. He's changed the logo back to the old logo to say, 'I know what the expectations are. Why hide it? We're not going to run from it.' I like that."
Mendenhall understands the inextricable link between BYU and the LDS Church. As the football program has fallen on hard times in recent years, some observers bring up the stringent honor code and the fact so many athletes leave to serve missions as reasons for the decline. Mendenhall, of course, sees it differently. "Those won't ever be reasons for failure," he says. "Those should be pillars for success."
When it comes to missions, Mendenhall has his own perspective. As a young man, he was so focused on playing in the NFL that he chose not to go on one.
"Even though I knew (going on a mission) was right, I didn't walk away from my football career to serve," he says. "I really have, throughout my life, done everything I can through my coaching to represent myself and this church in a way that maybe wouldn't make up for it, but make sure that everyone knew what I really believed."
Like Sears, there is a softer side to Bronco Mendenhall. Although not many people get to see it.
He remains especially close to his father. Mendenhall talks to Paul almost every day on the phone as he drives home after work. They get together two or three times a week.
When Mendenhall returns home, usually at about 7 or 7:30 p.m., his three sons — Cutter (5), Breaker (3) and Raeder (18 months) — are eager to greet him. His wife, Holly, describes him as a great father who enjoys getting down on the floor to play with them.
"The boys adore him," she says.
Mendenhall's three sons have provided a much-needed balance in his life, particularly when things don't go well at work. "He's a perfectionist," Holly says. "When things go wrong, it frustrates him. The kids help with that. They're good for him. It helps him remember that it's not the end of the world to lose a football game."
The Mendenhalls spend a lot of their time together outdoors, including activities like swimming, riding bikes and riding horses. Sometimes, on Sundays when the weather is pleasant, Mendenhall walks with the older boys to church. As they walk, he tells them stories. "These are stories off the top of his head with good morals," Holly says. "He's a creative person. I want him to write children's books. I tell him, 'We could make a million dollars if you were a children's author.' "
While he's comfortable speaking in front of crowds large and small, Bronco is a private person, Holly says, and not inclined to make small talk. "People who know him know he just likes to hang out. We'll go to a restaurant and people try to talk to him. He can be abrupt when people invade his personal space. A lot of people don't relate to Bronco. He's not going to be your best friend."
Speaking of that softer side, Holly reveals that her husband is something of a romantic. "He writes me great love letters. He's so creative, very good with words," she says. "For my birthday or anniversary, he'll leave cards in the shower and in the fridge. He's very thoughtful. I'm amazed all the time."
There's nothing soft, of course, about Mendenhall's desire to win.
The blond-haired man wakes up every morning at 5:45 and leaves for campus by 6:15. He knows that rebuilding a program requires rolling up the sleeves and going to work. He simply applies the same work ethic that he learned in his youth, spent in a barn, with his dad and the horses.
Just don't get in his way. "He can be crabby in the morning," Holly says. "He's not a morning person."
Mendenhall doesn't think of himself as too young or too inexperienced to accomplish the task at hand. It helps that he has a bevy of experienced players returning this fall, a staff around him that he calls one of the best in the nation, and a more favorable schedule than the program has had in a few years.
Those who know him best have no doubts that he will enjoy long-term success at BYU. Mendenhall is more than willing to live up to those expectations.
"I simply go one day at a time, one task at a time, one project at a time in an attempt to build this program to the greatness that it once knew," he says. "I have a very clear idea of what the expectation is. I have a very clear idea of what the demand is and what BYU football is supposed to be. With every ounce of energy that I have and every bit of ability I've been blessed with, I'm driven to return it to that place."