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BYU football: Oregon State helped refine Bronco Mendenhall as a coach, man

PROVO — You won't catch BYU's Bronco Mendenhall waxing nostalgic as he prepares to coach against his alma mater, Oregon State, in Tuesday's Las Vegas Bowl.

When the No. 15 Cougars meet the No. 16 Beavers (6 p.m., ESPN), Mendenhall will face a once-beleaguered program that has transformed into one of the top teams in the Pac-10 and in the nation. It's a school where Mendenhall spent six years of his life as a player, graduate assistant and an assistant coach.

Over the past couple of weeks, he's been asked many times about his memories of his time spent in Corvallis. He said he doesn't remember much, calling it "a blur."

Truth is, much of that period was forgettable because when Mendenhall was associated with OSU, it was one of the worst programs in the country. One of the worst of all time. Who would have guessed that Mendenhall would emerge from that experience to become a head coach who would guide BYU to four straight seasons of double-digit victories?

Consider this: Mendenhall's 2009 Cougars have almost as many wins (10) as Mendenhall saw in his six seasons in Corvallis (13).

Yet those struggles at OSU helped shape him.

"Everything was difficult. That, in and of itself, established a work ethic and an appreciation for just the nature of how difficult winning football games is," Mendenhall said.

From 1971-1998, OSU suffered 28 consecutive losing seasons — an NCAA record. During that time, the Beavers twice strung together 15-game losing streaks. No wonder they were known as "The Bad News Beavs."

All of which makes the job that coach Mike Riley, who has been called the savior of OSU football, has done in Corvallis nothing short of amazing.

"Those times were hard times in Oregon State's history," Mendenhall said of his stints at OSU. "Oregon State hadn't turned the corner yet. Coach Riley's staff was probably the first to capitalize on a lot of the facility improvements and the vision (former) coach Jerry Pettibone had to then move it forward. I was part of a program that wasn't having much success."

Riley coached the Beavers for two seasons, in 1997 and 1998, before becoming the head coach of the NFL's San Diego Chargers. In 1999, his replacement, Dennis Erickson, led OSU to its first winning season since 1970 as the Beavers rose from the ashes of futility. Riley returned to Corvallis in 2003 and OSU has now been to a bowl game in nine of the last 11 seasons — and posted five straight bowl victories.

Since 2006, the Beavers have posted records of 10-4, 9-4, 9-4 and 8-4.

"We've never had any more success in a three-year stint than in any other era of Oregon State football, I would guess," Riley said this week.

Aside from his friendship with Riley, which has been forged in recent years, Mendenhall said he has no real connections to Oregon State. But he appreciates his time there.

"It feels like a different lifetime, which it was," he said. "Maybe anyone you would talk to from there probably would describe me differently then as well. The memories are pleasant. I learned a lot of valuable lessons. I think it was a formative stage in my life and in my career."

While playing at American Fork High, and then at Snow Junior College in the mid-1980s, Mendenhall wanted to play at BYU, where his father, Paul, and brother, Mat, played. But the Cougars never offered him a scholarship.

"The reason I chose Oregon State out of junior college was that BYU was on the schedule," Mendenhall recalled. "I felt passed over (by BYU). The reality was, I just wasn't a good enough player. But that's the reason I chose Oregon State."

The pinnacle of his time at OSU as a player came on Nov. 15, 1986, when the Beavers beat the Cougars, 10-7, in Provo. Mendenhall, a two-year starter at safety, made a handful of tackles.

Mendenhall wore his patented neck roll that day. "And the high tops, and probably bit on every play-action pass there was," he recalled. "I wasn't known for my coverage abilities."

After the game, "I remember laying down, spread-eagle, on the 50-yard line with my eyes closed, kind of soaking in the experience. I vividly remember walking back to the locker room thinking, 'Now what?' "

In 1987, Mendenhall served as a team captain and was voted the team's most inspirational player. He ended up graduating from OSU and then received a master's degree from there. He served as a graduate assistant at Oregon State before stops as an assistant at Snow College and Northern Arizona. Mendenhall returned to OSU in 1995, becoming, at age 29, the youngest defensive coordinator in Pac-10 history, under Pettibone.

Pettibone and his staff, including Mendenhall, were fired after the 1996 season, an experience that is part of most coaching odysseys. Yet years later, the lessons that Mendenhall learned during some dark times in Corvallis remain with him today as BYU's head coach.

"I learned how important it was to have just a strong work ethic and how difficult it is to win football games," he said. "They should be valued and treasured when you are able to have success."

Maaco Bowl Las Vegas

No. 15 BYU (10-2) vs. No. 16 Oregon State (8-4)

Dec. 22, 6 p.m.

Sam Boyd Stadium

TV: ESPN Radio: 102.7 FM, 1160 AM

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com