PROVO — A few months ago, Bronco Mendenhall said nobody was more surprised than him that he lasted a decade as BYU’s head coach.
On Friday, Mendenhall surprised — or maybe shocked is a more appropriate word — the college football world by accepting the head coaching job at the University of Virginia, replacing Mike London. He will receive a five-year contract starting at $3.25 million annually.
In a somewhat unusual move, Mendenhall, 49, will stay on to coach the Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 19. It will be his final game as BYU’s head coach, and he will be seeking his 100th victory at BYU. In 11 seasons under Mendenhall, the Cougars posted a record of 99-42.
BYU has begun a national search for its next head coach, athletic director Tom Holmoe said. The Cougars have had just three head coaches since 1972.
In 2013, Mendenhall signed a contract extension through the 2016 season. At the end of each year, he and his wife, Holly, would sit down and determine whether he would return as BYU's coach.
“The answer right now is, it’s time for somebody else,” said an emotional Mendenhall during a news conference Friday night. “I think the program can grow, people can grow, I can grow and that usually comes through change. I asked our team today to embrace change. … I’ve been lucky enough to be the one to have the title of head coach during that time. I’m thankful for that.”
In recent years, Mendenhall expressed his desire for BYU to join a Power 5 conference. Now, he’ll have the opportunity to coach a Power 5 program.
Mendenhall acknowledged the role BYU has played in his life.
“This isn’t something that you can script, nor is life something that can be scripted,” he said. “Who I am now has been shaped, molded and directed through BYU. I am a product of Brigham Young University. … I’ve done my best to align the football program with the values of the (LDS) Church with the academic and athletic standards.”
Mendenhall leaves Sunday for Charlottesville, Virginia, for a Monday news conference and will return Monday night to prepare BYU for its bowl game. After the Las Vegas Bowl, Mendenhall will return to Charlottesville with his family.
“Virginia reminds me a lot of BYU when I was named head coach here,” Mendenhall said. “I see tremendous chance for growth and opportunity. I like to build, I like challenge, I like growth. I like learning. I see a fantastic challenge and opportunity.”
Mendenhall said he was contacted by Virginia after the regular-season finale at Utah State last Saturday. He interviewed with Virginia last Monday. The offer came at about noon Friday and he deliberated for three hours.
“I was late for the meeting with my players,” said Mendenhall, who wanted to make sure that his players received the news of his decision from him first.
At that meeting, “there were varied responses. There was sadness and anger and shock,” Mendenhall said. “I wanted to finish with this team. I’m not for collectively coaches leaving teams before the season is done. In my own heart, I’m thankful to Tom for the opportunity to be able to do that. Tom wanted me to and I wanted to. I’d love to finish playing really good football one more time.”
Freshman quarterback Tanner Mangum summed up the players’ reaction to the news.
“We all felt a feeling of sadness because coach Mendenhall means so much to us for what he does not only on the field but off the field,” he said. “He’s been the coach since I was 10 years old, basically since I started watching BYU football. To think about him gone is kind of a sad feeling. He’s meant so much to this program and this team and to me personally. He’ll be missed.”
Players stood and cheered for Mendenhall at the end of the team meeting, Mangum and Holmoe said.
Holmoe praised Mendenhall for his efforts at BYU.
“I wanted to express my gratitude to Bronco for the job he did at BYU. It’s hard to define what the job is to coach the BYU football team. It takes in so many things. He’s been a great partner," he said. "We’ve dealt in 11 years with so many incredibly rich experiences. I kind of get to be the voice of Cougar Nation to say, ‘Thank you.’ In the 11 years that we’ve been together, with him at the helm of this team, lives have changed, and he’s influenced in such a positive way so many of our student-athletes. So much of a coach’s production is not on the field.”
Mendenhall took over a BYU program in 2005 that had suffered three straight losing seasons. He led the Cougars to Mountain West Conference championships in 2006 and 2007 and directed the program through independence.
"Bronco Mendenhall's teams have consistently won at a high level and he's demonstrated the ability to create a strategic vision to build a program and then implement his plan to be successful," Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said in a statement. "His emphasis on the overall development of student athletes and a commitment to academic achievement is in line with our goals of Uncompromised Excellence. We're excited to begin a new era of Virginia football and support Bronco and his staff."
BYU is scheduled to play at Virginia in 2019, and the Cougars will host the Cavaliers in 2023.
“I don’t want it, quite frankly,” Mendenhall said of those games. “I have feelings for the players and this program that aren’t going away in four years. I’d just as soon that game be moved back until I’m done coaching. I don’t want to play BYU. I don’t know how I’d handle that.”
BYU and Virginia met in 2013 and 2014, with the two teams winning the home games.
Mendenhall ranks 12th in total wins among all FBS teams since 2005. He also ranks 13th in winning percentage (.702) among all active coaches with at least five years of FBS experience, and he ranks 10th among active coaches with at least 10 years of experience.
Mendenhall said money mattered “very little” in his decision to leave BYU for Virginia.
“I want to coach a team that can grow and improve and reach their potential,” he said. “That’s what is at the heart of my decision. It’s the chance for a different challenge and to help a different set of players reach their potential, I like that idea.”
Holmoe believes Mendenhall will be successful in his new job.
“I’m really supportive of him in this new adventure that he has,” he said. “People have asked me for years, ‘Could he coach somewhere else?’ Yeah, he can coach somewhere else. He’s a very, very good football coach. He’s got a great opportunity ahead of him.”