PROVO — Nobody is more surprised that Bronco Mendenhall is still the head coach of the BYU football team than Bronco Mendenhall.
From the time he was hired in December 2004, he was adamant that he wouldn’t be in this position on a long-term basis.
A decade later, Mendenhall’s still here.
In 2013, he signed a contract extension through the 2016 season. How much longer will he remain at BYU?
“As long as I feel like I’m supposed to be at BYU, and supposed to be doing this, then I’ll stay,” Mendenhall said. “But that’s a year-to-year decision and it has been the past couple of years.”
Asked recently to reflect on his 10 seasons at the helm, Mendenhall didn’t point to many specifics, explaining that he’s not one to dwell on the past. But, overall, he is gratified by what’s happened since he became the head coach.
“I’m not one of those coaches that can name the year and the season, and the game and who the starters were,” said Mendenhall, who has posted a 90-39 record overall. “But I can collectively say there’s a sense of peace and accomplishment from who we have attracted to BYU and have played here. I’m at peace with the intent of why we brought the players here and who they were and how they’ve developed here. I’m at peace with the consistency of success — and always driven for more. Ultimately, I would characterize the last 10 years as a remarkable stretch individually for growth and challenges that are 24-7.”
One of the many challenges has been navigating the program through independence since 2011. The Cougars are coming off three straight 8-5 seasons, and they face one of the toughest schedules in their history this fall.
“Over these last couple of years of independence, it has been harder on him. I ask him to do things that are not easy,” said athletic director Tom Holmoe. “It is a very difficult job that I feel Bronco has stood up to very well. He has made mistakes along the road, and he has done things, probably, that he wishes he could have had back. But this guy’s got a great outlook in moving forward. He’s a strong personality, and he’s got a great confidence in what he can do. And working together with him, I believe that we can reach the dreams that the two of us have.”
'A huge mantle to wear'
On any given day, Mendenhall never knows who is going to walk through his office door at the BYU football complex — or what challenge he is going to deal with next.
One aspect of the job that Mendenhall underestimated 10 years ago was the breadth and depth of issues he’d have to face.
“There’s an element of loneliness that comes with leadership. There’s an element of growth that comes with leadership,” he said. “Each time I open the door, it becomes exhilarating and exhausting by what next comes in because of the breadth of challenges and opportunities. A lot of times a couple will come in and they’re struggling with family finances. Right after, there’s a national (media) interview, right after a player that may have had misconduct of some kind, right after a player that wants marital advice, right after a coach that wants to talk about recruiting, right after a donor who’s coming in that needs attention or an alum that is happy or disgruntled — all in the space of two or three hours. I used to describe it early in my career as a constant state of readiness. It’s now a constant state of opportunity. Hopefully, I can live in a way and be knowledgeable enough in a way to provide help and to be competent and professional and beneficial, no matter who comes in the door. That’s what the past 10 years have done. I could never have imagined what I would end up addressing on a life scale.”
Such is the life of being the head football coach at BYU. Some compare it to being a bishop or a mission president. It encompasses much more than football.
Inside linebackers coach Paul Tidwell, a member of the staff since 2001, has been with Mendenhall throughout his tenure at BYU. How would he describe Mendenhall’s job?
“It’s wearing a ton of different hats with a lot of variety. He’s a head football coach. He’s a teacher. But along with that, at BYU, he’s not a bishop or an ordained minister, but he has to wear that hat at times as a spiritual counselor,” Tidwell said. “He’s a marriage counselor. He doesn’t have a degree to be a marriage counselor, but he is one at times. He’s got to be a little bit of a politician, working with those people above him. He’s got to have a shoulder to cry upon for a player or coach and their families. There’s a whole lot that goes with the title of head football coach, especially at BYU. You add recruiting on top of that, trying to recruit players who are Division I football players and a great fit on the team and the community. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. There is certainly a lot of diversity every day that he faces. It’s a huge mantle to wear. There are a lot of detail things that he takes care of that are probably not typical at other universities.”
Former BYU defensive lineman Russell Tialavea, who was part of Mendenhall’s first recruiting class in 2005, remembers approaching Mendenhall with trepidation after deciding to interrupt his career to serve a mission, something Tialavea originally hadn’t planned on doing.
“I went into his office to tell him he was going to lose his No. 1 nose guard,” said Tialavea, who is now BYU’s assistant director of operations. “I didn’t know how he was going to approach it. I broke down and he was totally supportive. I could tell he was happy to see one of his players make an important decision.”
Some tend to forget that when Mendenhall was named BYU's head coach, replacing Gary Crowton, the Cougars were in the throes of three straight losing seasons. Plus, a dark cloud hovered over the program due to off-field incidents that brought negative publicity to BYU.
In his first season, Mendenhall guided the Cougars to a bowl game and a 6-6 record. Then BYU posted records of 11-2, 11-2, 10-3 and 11-2 the next four seasons, including a pair of Mountain West Conference championships and four top-25 finishes.
The Cougars have gone to bowl games for 10 straight seasons. There have been dramatic, memorable, last-second victories over Utah and an upset victory over No. 3 Oklahoma to kick off the 2009 season at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
But records and statistics aren’t necessarily what pop into Mendenhall’s mind when he thinks about the positives from the last 10 seasons.
“The high points are seeing players and people I love and care about succeed,” he said. “Those intimate moments in a locker room or in a staff room where there’s been an accomplishment through hardship that’s been overcome, I love that part. That has changed from being a results-only oriented coach to begin with to where I still value that more than anyone else that cares about BYU football. I still think my love for that is the highest. But there’s been this human element that’s come along the way that ends up being more lasting and substantive than any of the other parts have ever been. That’s happened over time. It’s different, quite frankly, than how I started.”
Looking at the program’s shortcomings under Mendenhall, critics bring up four consecutive losses to arch-rival Utah and three consecutive eight-win seasons. Some note the lack of NFL draft picks coming out of the program (zero players selected in three of the past five seasons).
For Mendenhall, what have been the low points of his BYU career?
“I would say any time that has possibly been hurtful or intentionally said to a coach or player on my team when I know how hard they are really working or trying that possibly didn’t measure up to an external standard,” he said. “Seeing a discrepancy there and seeing people that I know and care about be hurt by that. Those are the low points.”
From Tidwell’s perspective, some of Mendenhall’s toughest moments have come when making staff changes.
Early in the 2010 season, for example, Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and took over the defense. After the 2012 campaign, he brought back offensive coordinator Robert Anae, replacing Brandon Doman.
“It’s not easy letting people go,” Tidwell said. “Over the 10 years, it’s probably one of the hardest things he’s had to do is rearrange coaching staffs. I know that’s been hard on him, because he cares about people. He cares a great deal about the program and the direction it’s heading.”
As seriously as he takes his responsibility as BYU’s football coach, he is also a husband and father and also serves on the high council in his LDS stake.
Mendenhall and his wife, Holly, are parents of three active sons, ages 15, 13, and 11. The boys have varied interests — theater, sports and animals — that Bronco and Holly strive to foster.
“Tying that together, with being a high councilman and working hard to be a good husband as well, that alone is full time. I never feel there’s enough time for that,” he said. “Nor do I feel, with this job, like there’s enough time for that. Then there’s a standard of excellence that has to be met from a professional and production standpoint that has to be the result of all that.”
Mendenhall lives by the mantra that “scheduled events happen; non-scheduled events don’t happen.”
In order to coordinate the many events and responsibilities in his life, his busy calendar is color-coordinated to help him manage his time wisely.
“Red is work. Purple is Holly. Green is the kids. Brown is spiritual. Orange is personal,” Mendenhall explained. “Every day has to reflect all of that, otherwise I will not do this anymore. I work as hard as I can as long as I can to do it all. While it might not be a comprehensive list in any area, at least something in that area is being addressed.”
When it comes to football, Mendenhall has achieved a sense of balance as well.
In 2005 as a first-time head coach, Mendenhall was ultra-intense and pushed players to their limits, Tialavea said. Mendenhall still holds his players accountable, and he remains a tireless worker, but he has learned how to work smarter.
“In some ways, he’s changed a lot. In others, he’s stayed the same. He loves the guys,” Tialavea said. “I came in and thought he was all about football. But as I got to know him one-on-one, he’s all about the individual. He wants his players to progress. Things are more efficient now. Practices are shorter and he makes sure the players are healthy and he realizes that is more important than just grinding on the field. He’s a lot wiser now.”
'The right guy for the job'
There are a few things Tidwell wishes people knew about Mendenhall.
“The depth of his love for BYU and the depth of his commitment to the program and wanting it to be successful,” he said. “I wish people would understand that he is a father and husband first, and really has a great perspective on life. Football is a game and it’s very important to him. He wants BYU to be successful. He talks about winning a national championship often. I also wish people knew of his lighter side. He’s got a really good sense of humor. He’s funny and he’s witty. Behind closed doors, he’s like that. When we have our staff meetings, there can be a lot of laughter, and then there’s the business side where it’s down-to-business. He’s got that (other) side to him that people don’t see much.”
When asked about moments with Mendenhall that stand out most, Tidwell gets emotional.
“The first thing that comes to mind is the way he’s taken care of my family and me,” he said. “He’s been a true friend … he has been such a personal friend to me during times of trouble.”
Tialavea agreed that Mendenhall is misunderstood.
“He has so much on his mind, how much he worries about the players individually,” he said. “He knows every guy inside out and their progression academically. I’ve seen that. Because of how he handles things, I’ve been blessed. Not a lot of people see that."
In 2008, Mendenhall said that football should be fifth on the list of priorities, behind faith, family, friends and school. Some people have misinterpreted what he meant by that.
"People say he’s not about winning," Tialavea said. "That dude wants to win. But he won’t take shortcuts to get there. He’s a winner. He does it the right way. He’s probably the most competitive guy I’ve seen in my life.”
As for the job Mendenhall has gone over the past 10 seasons, Tidwell is impressed with what he has accomplished both on and off the field.
“He’s handled it really well. I think he was the right guy for the job,” Tidwell said. “He’s been able to juggle a lot of situations at a unique university. He’s been able to be very successful with 10 straight bowl games. He’s doing something right. He’s doing a lot of things right.”
10 YEARS AS BYU'S HEAD COACH: BRONCO BY THE NUMBERS
Hired: December 13, 2004
Games coached: 129
Overall record: 90-39 (.698)
• BYU’s 90-39 record in Mendenhall’s 10 seasons ranks No. 13 nationally in that time frame for the most wins. Only 12 teams have more wins over the last 10 seasons.
• Under Mendenhall, the Cougars are one of eight programs to achieve 90 or more wins and play in a bowl game each of the last 10 seasons. The other programs to accomplish this feat are Boise State, LSU, Georgia, Oregon, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin.
• In the past 10 seasons BYU has produced seven Academic All-Americans, which ranks tied for seventh among all Division I (FBS) programs.
• Since 2005 under Mendenhall, BYU is one of only 25 programs to receive a final Top 25 ranking at least five times in that 10-year span.
• The Cougars own the ninth-best home winning percentage nationally during Mendenhall's tenure at .820 (50-11). They are also 20th in road winning percentage at .589 (33-23) with the program's 33 road wins being the ninth-most road victories nationally in the past decade.
• Mendenhall’s .600 postseason winning percentage (6-4 record) is tops in BYU history. LaVell Edwards had a 7-14-1 (.341) record and Gary Crowton posted an 0-1 (.000) mark.
• Mendenhall’s overall number of victories at this point in his career approaches that of Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards even with Mendenhall’s teams facing double the number of Power 5-level opponents in that time frame. Mendenhall has achieved 90 wins while Edwards had 93 victories in their respective first 129 games leading the Cougars.
• Mendenhall’s teams have an 18-19 record against BCS/Power 5 opponents for a .486 winning percentage. Edwards’ teams during his career had a .428 win percentage against such competition.