PROVO — Paul Tidwell sat in the stands at LaVell Edwards Stadium when BYU hosted UCLA in September.
Nobody could blame him for feeling a bit lost.
Tidwell had spent the previous 46 years either playing or coaching football. He had spent the previous 15 seasons as an assistant coach at BYU before Bronco Mendenhall took most of his staff with him to Virginia.
Tidwell was one of the few staffers who didn't follow him to Charlottesville.
So BYU's home opener against UCLA marked the first time in his life that he watched a BYU football game in LaVell Edwards Stadium with his wife Colleen.
At one point, Tidwell decided to buy a hot dog, so he turned to Colleen and asked, “Where is the concession stand?”
“You don’t know where the concessions are?” she asked incredulously.
“No,” he said, “I’ve never been on this level before.”
While he is no longer coaching, Tidwell wanted to stay at BYU in some capacity.
“Bronco had hinted to me, a couple of years ago, that there was going to come a time when he was probably going to move on,” Tidwell said. “I told him, ‘I don’t know if you would ask me to go with you, but I’d probably want to stay.’ It was a mutual understanding that I was going to stay.”
BYU ended up hiring Kalani Sitake as the head coach to replace Mendenhall and Sitake retained only one of Mendenhall’s assistants, defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi.
Tidwell, meanwhile, let BYU administrators know that he wanted to finish his career at BYU. Eventually, the administration hired Tidwell as Student-Athlete Welfare Coordinator, a newly created position in the athletic department.
“They asked me if I was interested. I said yes,” Tidwell said. “I started August 1 and it’s been quite a whirlwind. I visit universities to broaden my vision. It’s going to take time.”
So in this, his first season without football in a long time, Tidwell is helping Cougar athletes transition to a life after sports. And, in a way, Tidwell is going through that process himself.
Tidwell oversees four areas within the athletic department — community service, the student-athlete advisory council, life skills and career development.
“Now, this all falls under one umbrella,” Tidwell said.
The new job seems to be a good fit for Tidwell, who has visited campuses at Northwestern, Nebraska, Penn State and Notre Dame, to name a few, to see how those schools help their student-athletes to glean information that can help him help BYU student-athletes.
“The career center on campus has been doing career preparation and résumés for the general population for years,” Tidwell said. “Now it’s focusing more on the student-athlete. Student-athletes are different. They have practice, study hall, competitions, class. A lot of them don’t take advantage of programs available up on campus. What we’re trying to do is provide those services in the Student Athlete Center. Career fairs are huge. We just had one in October. We have another one in January.”
Certainly, it’s a much different experience than being an inside linebackers coach like he was for so many years at BYU.
Does he miss football?
“There are parts of it that I say, ‘Oh good, I don’t have the pressure of this.’ I can go home and be with my wife at 5 in the afternoon,” Tidwell said. “There are some of those things that are really nice. Then I see the team run onto the field and I miss those kinds of things. I go to the second floor and look at the Linebacker Room where I spent so much time in and I miss it. I miss practices and I miss game day. I don’t miss the pressure of game day. There was always pressure to recruit and a constant feeling of pressure. I don’t miss that part of it. To be able to sit in the stands and watch a game with Colleen is really nice. It’s relaxing. I don’t critique as much as I thought I would. I just enjoy the game. I enjoy watching (linebacker) Butch (Pau’u) and our other linebackers play, guys we spent a lot of time with and recruited. It’s fun to watch them play and be successful.”
Almost a year ago, days after the end of the regular season, Mendenhall stunned the college football world by accepting the head coaching job at Virginia.
“I knew something like that might happen but I was caught off guard like everybody else,” Tidwell recalled. “I was just surprised it happened when it did and the fact he went to Virginia. It was kept very quiet. The timing was a little surprising.”
Days later, news broke that he was taking almost all of his assistants and support staff to Virginia, though they would all remain at BYU through the Las Vegas Bowl against archrival Utah. It made for an awkward situation.
And things got even more awkward when, just minutes into the game, as the Utes jumped out to a 35-0 lead against the mistake-prone Cougars. Utah ended up winning 35-28.
“I didn’t know for sure if it was going to be my last game coaching but I kind of had that feeling that it may be because I knew I wasn’t going to Virginia,” Tidwell said. “I really felt like it was one of the best and funnest games I ever coached in, even though we lost, because of how we fought back and how fast we got behind and then to hold them to 35 points. The kids could have tanked it right then, fallen to pieces. It could have been 70-0. But to see them fight back the way they did and to come back and almost tie it up, we just ran out of time. To me, it was heartbreaking at the beginning but it was one of the most rewarding games because of how hard the kids fought back and showed a lot of character.”
Tidwell said that resilience has carried over to this year’s team. He is impressed with the job Sitake and his staff has done in its first season at BYU.
“They’ve done really well. Kalani’s style is so much different. It’s his style,” Tidwell said. “To have their record they have with the tough schedule and the caliber of teams they’re playing, they’ve done a good job of keeping kids healthy and they’ve been in every game. That takes a lot of good preparation and cohesiveness. They’ve done very well. I just want to see our players be successful. They’ve got some good players and I hope they do really well.”
Meanwhile, Tidwell has kept in close contact with Mendenhall and his other friends on Virginia’s coaching staff.
Tidwell visited with former defensive coordinator Nick Howell when he came to recruit in Utah during the Cavaliers’ bye week. When Mendenhall came to Utah last summer, the two went out to lunch together.
“We talk and text back and forth. They’re like co-workers that you become friends with and you keep in touch with them,” Tidwell said. “I follow Virginia and I’m interested in what they’re doing. I text them before games to wish them good luck. I follow them very closely. (Linebackers coach) Kelly Poppinga will text me and say, ‘You’ve got to watch this linebacker, he reminds me of a linebacker on BYU’s team.’ One night they called me and asked, ‘Do you remember what we do on a certain defense? What does the mike linebacker do in this coverage?’ That part’s been fun.”
At the same time, of course, Tidwell maintains relationships with his former players at BYU even though he’s no longer a coach.
“Being on the third floor near the academic center and being around all of the student-athletes, it helps keep me involved,” he said. “I see the players and I’m getting to know student-athletes from other sports, which is really fun.”