BYU is in Bronco Mendenhall's rear-view mirror in terms of his coaching career, but the former Cougar football coach still has fond memories and strong feelings for the school.
"I loved Brigham Young University and am so thankful, and I loved the players there," Mendenhall said during an interview Wednesday with 1280 The Zone. "I love the school. I’m passionate about everything that happens there."
That said, Mendenhall is now having the time of his life at Virginia, where his 6-3 team has qualified for a bowl game after a rough 2-10 campaign in his first year at the ACC school.
In a captivating 19-minute interview, Mendenhall admitted he's enjoying being under less scrutiny — including at church on Sundays, and especially after losses — and that his life has a better balance now that he's moved on from Provo to Charlottesville.
In particular, the LDS coach likes that football and his faith aren't intertwined like they were at his previous place of employment, a university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"People’s belief systems aren't contingent on the score of a football game," Mendenhall said, "which is really different for me having come from BYU where not only was football important, but because football was tied so closely to BYU, which is tied so closely to your faith and the faith of so many there, those lines became completely blurred and it all seemed like one thing. That is a real challenge. I’m not sure there’s any job in the country or in the world that’s like that job."
Mendenhall admitted he feels for his successor, second-year BYU coach Kalani Sitake, and the Cougar athletes who are struggling through a 2-8 season this year.
"I don’t think anyone can imagine what a weekend is like when you don’t win in Provo as the head football coach," Mendenhall said. "I’m talking about Sunday included — for the players also. There's really high expectations, as there should be, as everyone that’s associated worldwide with BYU football and the LDS faith. My simple message (to them) is, is the culture and the small and simple things precede the performance."
The 51-year-old, who hails from Alpine, Utah, also reiterated that he's not a fan of long-term independence for BYU. Instead, he believes that the university needs to do what it can to become a Power 5 program.
Oh, and, yes, he did use some colorful language during the Cavaliers' game against Boise State this season and, no, he's not planning on getting a tattoo in spite of what his players might say.
Here's the transcript of Mendenhall's interview with 1280 The Zone sports-talk hosts David James and Patrick Kinahan:
Question: After going 2-10 last year, did you think a turnaround season like you're having was possible?
Mendenhall: The deficit where the program was operating from was beneath where I anticipated and all that did was really shift the time frame and possibly how long it might take. It didn’t squelch any or the optimism of the challenge or really the invigoration of taking on something that really needs to be a start-up more than a rebuild. So all that really happened was the time frame shifted as I saw and learned where we were launching from.
Question: (Host recalls celebrations after wins against Wyoming and New Mexico that made BYU bowl eligible.) How do you compare what you went through after last week's 40-36 win over Georgia Tech to what you went through in similar situations at BYU?
Mendenhall: It’s almost verbatim — the feelings, the emotion and quite frankly the energy that it took to have a milestone accomplished. ... New Mexico, it was so significant because we had started so slow. When you start like that, you’re just never quite sure when or if it’s going to break through. In the Wyoming game, (there was) freezing rain and they turned it over five times to us. It took everything we had to get bowl eligible under those circumstances. The game against Georgia Tech could have been the wildest game I’ve ever been part of. There were just so many ups and downs and side ways and different things that happened right to the very, very, very end. The players literally just erupted. It was so gratifying, and really the main reason I came to Virginia is those moments. Those are my most significant memories, all those things that happened at the beginning of my tenure at BYU in returning and reestablishing a program. I realized over time that that was what my passion was, was building. It took a while to figure that out, but what this last Saturday did was just reaffirm to me and affirm that that’s what I really love to do. It was very similar.
Question: Was there a moment when you looked at the Virginia guys and thought 'I’m finally getting through?'"
Mendenhall: I’m not sure there was a moment. But what I believe, trust is built with time and consistency. I think once they realized — and for each one of them it’s probably different — that I wasn’t going to get tired of holding them accountable for everything they’re doing, that I'm going to keep asking them to do really hard things. Some of them probably they didn’t see any correlation to football at all, but they knew what was going to happen the next day and there wasn’t going to be any deviance from that and every day was going to be this amazing challenge. And there was some attrition, to be honest, at the beginning when I arrived, but there was at BYU also. I can’t say that there was a moment, but I can say our culture has preceded our performance. Even a year ago when our record was 2-10, our culture was strong and vibrant behind the scenes. It certainly didn’t show up on the field. That was where almost my entire focus was — trying to get that part right. The second year we’ve been able to focus and shift a lot more on the competitive work, which is playing the game. When you put those two things together and you start seeing some results, and luckily in our second year we got off to a strong start … I think it lent credibility to some of the methods that they maybe didn’t understand and maybe still don’t.
Question: You said you really had no idea what you were doing at first at BYU. When you got to Virginia, how much did that learning-on-the-job experience from BYU enable you to hasten development?
Mendenhall: It helped immensely. Those points of reference, while not identical, many did help. There were kind of benchmarks along the way that were similar. This program is starting from a significantly lower level in almost every area than when I was named head coach at BYU. There, we had just had three losing seasons (before I was hired). This had been nine of the last 10. There wasn’t a kid on my team a year ago that had ever won a road game. When you start thinking about things like that, it’s baffling. There's not a young man on my team that’s ever been to a bowl game. It’s so much fun to know what to look for and see the signs of how they carry themselves, their poise and demeanor and their confidence, not only on the field but around the building. That part is so gratifying. That’s what was happening at BYU that showed up before we started playing consistently.
Question: Is there a ceiling at Virginia?
Mendenhall: I certainly don’t see a ceiling, but sometimes ceilings don't show themselves until more time has passed. I was the head coach at BYU for over 10 years. The picture becomes clearer each and every year. I'm more clear about Virginia my second year than I was my first. We have a brand-new president that’s being named that’s coming in. We have a brand-new AD that’s coming in. We have a brand-new second position AD that’s coming in. At this point ... if I had perfect eyesight I wouldn't be able to see the ceiling. We’re at the very beginning stages of establishing this program. I’m thrilled that we get an extra game. These kids, they’ve deserved it and worked hard for that. It’s necessary to build and to show credibility but also to gain momentum. Man, we’re just barely beginning this process of establishing a consistent and quality football program.
(In terms of number of wins) I love the idea of eight, nine, 10 or more per year. I’ve seen nothing yet that says that can’t happen here, but, holy cow, what it takes to win a single game takes three or four days to recover from. I'm not to the point where I can think about that yet.
Question: When you were in Provo, the job was all-encompassing. You were smothered on Sundays, at the gas station, when you went out to eat, etc. Compare what you have at Virginia to what it was like at BYU.
Mendenhall: It’s the exact opposite end of the spectrum at U.Va. The educational part is so strong. I would say on the East Coast in general the education is amazingly strong and emphasized, which I love that part, which is another reason I chose to come here. At U.Va., almost every sport is exceptional. The nature of the town is more, it’s more diverse. There's just more things that people are interested in. People’s belief systems aren't contingent on the score of a football game, which is really different for me having come from BYU, where not only was football important but because football was tied so closely to BYU, which is tied so closely to your faith and the faith of so many there, those lines became completely blurred and it all seemed like one thing. That is a real challenge. I’m not sure there’s any job in the country or in the world that’s like that job. I learned so much from that, but the demands on my time and the exposure that I’m under or the visibility that I have here in relation to what I had there, it can’t even compare. I’m having much more in terms of my personal life — the coaches' hours are the coaches’ hours — but in terms of balance, that part has been really refreshing and invigorating. It has really helped me reprioritize and look back at just how much of an effect being in that position at BYU had on me over all those years.
Question: Now that you have some P5 experience, do you look back at BYU and analyze that school's ability of how it competes as an independent differently?
Mendenhall: My assessment’s pretty simple. ... I loved Brigham Young University and am so thankful and I loved the players there. I love the school. I’m passionate about everything that happens there. I also was fairly outspoken along the way that I wanted to be in a Power 5 league with that support, with those resources and with that brand, in addition to the BYU brand, to compete at the very highest level in anything we did, which I think BYU wants to do or needs to do. I don’t think and didn’t think then that independence was sustainable. I alluded to that as many times to as many people I could say. What I can say is that the Power 5 teams that we were playing there, there was a difference when we played them. And what I can say now after playing these teams week in and week out is the level of coaching is at a higher level, the level of athletes are at a higher level, the way the game is played is at a higher level, and it happens every single week. It is a more significant challenge than what I think is currently being assessed at BYU and with what I think it might take to do that. But I want that for BYU and I think they belong but then would have to make some obvious changes to the different support areas to ensure that that could happen, and they could have success at the level we would all want them to.
Question: What would be the message to the current BYU coaching staff and their 2-8 team based on your experience?
Mendenhall: I feel for the players, the coaches that are there currently. I don’t think anyone can imagine what a weekend is like when you don’t win in Provo as the head football coach. I’m talking about Sunday included. For the players also. There's really high expectations, as there should be, as everyone that’s associated worldwide with BYU football and the LDS faith. My simple message is, is the culture and the small and simple things precede the performance. Class attendance matters. Off the field behavior matters. Dress and grooming matters. Alignment with the values of the church matter. Being a great ambassador for their faith matters. Bringing the right kids that perfectly fit into that matters. And if all that gets right — and not saying it isn’t — if all that is right the chance to then focus on playing football is increased and the performance usually shows that.
Question: We've heard rumors about you using some strong language. Did you? How did it go over with team?
Mendenhall: Yes, I did use language that was not appropriate. None of this is justification, by the way. This would be more confession, just because that’s part of the repentance process. We were at Boise and we gave up the score right before halftime that I was furious about, and a lot was made of it. It was really an inappropriate sentence is what I said. It was said in a halftime speech. There were about four words total. I felt bad immediately after I did it. And then, anyway, the team played really well and they erupted. They (players) thought it was really cool because they hadn’t heard me say anything like that, which that’s neither good or bad. We played well (42-23 win). And then it’s Sunday and my sister-in-law who’s in Montana texts my wife, her sister, and says, 'What in the world did your husband do?' And so Holly asked me, ‘What did you do?’ and I said, 'I don’t know. What did I do?' She alluded to some article that was written that I used colorful language in the locker room and she said, 'Did you say that?' And I said, 'Yeah, I did.' And she said, 'Well, I’d like to know,' and I said, 'Well, I didn’t know that was going to be a story coming from our locker room.' She said, 'OK, well what did you say and how are we going to go about this in the future?' I said, 'It’s not going to happen very often and how did I know a story was going to be written?' It was a unique set of circumstances. And then my boys overheard it, my three sons, so we had to have a little family council. I said, 'OK, I'm not perfect. I wasn't when I was at BYU, either. So this is what I said, and this is how I’ve gone about fixing it.' Holy smokes! Lesson learned.
Question: Your quarterback said you were going to get a tattoo if you make a bowl game?
Mendenhall: (Laughs) I have not committed to that. That is rumor at this point. While the team is strongly encouraging me to do that, that is not something I’ve agreed to or even considered. ... Any substance is from the players only. I don’t see that happening.