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Military Bowl features unique clash of Mormon coaches in search of a big win

PROVO — They believe in peace, love, service to fellow men and undying faith, yet are employed to coach a game laced with violence and physical domination in what really amounts to an organized fight. This week, two Mormon men will balance the dichotomy of those two notions and go at it face to face.

When Bronco Mendenhall and Ken Niumatalolo lead Virginia and the Naval Academy in a face-off in the Military Bowl on Thursday, it will be a featured clash of two football teams led by devout members of the LDS Church who, by all accounts, are proven leaders of young men.

Mendenhall and Niumatalolo both believe in the warrior mentality. They spend all their time designing ways to elevate the performance of players in what amounts to organized combat. They labor for the hearts of players, pushing, pulling, preaching for them to become more than they appear, to reach deep into their souls to mine one more sliver of effort play by play, quarter by quarter and be stout at the finish where they hope to triumph.

Virginia (6-6) and Navy (6-6) will play in the Military Bowl in Annapolis, Maryland, three days after Christmas.

Two years ago, when Mendenhall left BYU for Virginia, Niumatalolo was interviewed by BYU officials to replace him. The Navy coach even attended the Las Vegas Bowl where BYU played rival Utah. The Naval Academy sweetened Niumatalolo's salary and benefits to keep him as BYU turned to pursue Kalani Sitake, the defensive coordinator at Oregon State.

For Mendenhall, it is a major step forward for his Cavaliers, a program that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2011, a major step in his rebuilding effort in Charlottesville. An avid reader, surfer and philosopher, his book “Running into the Wind” breaks down the philosophical behavioral science of competing.

For Niumatalolo, his Navy program began the season 5-0 and appeared well on its way to another impressive effort under the native Hawaiian once featured in his faith’s “Meet the Mormons” movie profile and was part of Showtime’s “A Season with Navy Football,” where a segment featured an emotional motivational speech after a loss this past season.

Mendenhall and Niumatalolo are serious personalities in college football, respected by their peers and players who are loyal as Labradors. Mendenhall is an introvert who is very protective of his privacy and space. Niumatalolo can be serious as a sunburn but is known to be downright silly and a jokester. Both men have cited scripture in public, Mendenhall doing so upon his announcement as BYU’s head coach in 2005. Niumatalolo’s office has a picture of Christ and Captain Moroni, a figure in the Book of Mormon.

Niumatalolo’s oldest son Va’a, who just finished playing for BYU, was coached by Mendenhall and has a unique perspective on both men.

“I think something they both have in common is they both believe in discipline and playing with a lot of effort. They’ll always take the guy who will execute and be a team player over the ones who do not,” said Va’a.

“I’ve always respected that. Especially playing with Bronco, I’ve learned a lot about accountability and having to play with total effort. I always thought I ran hard until I got to BYU and did his pursuit drills, then I learned I could run a little harder.

“Both of them have very different personalities,” said Va’a. “For me, for my dad, I’m not sure how his personality is as a coach but from my perspective, it is similar to how he is as a dad. I see my dad as a jokester. He’s a hard worker but if you sit down with him, he’s kind of a goofy guy. Coach Mendenhall is very analytical and deep with everything. You could sit down and have a conversation with him about warrior culture.”

Mendenhall is more reserved, said Va’a.

Earlier this month, Mendenhall was quoted by SB Nation’s “Streak the Lawn,” praising Va’a. “He’s the ideal, in terms of behavior, work ethic, discipline, kindness, unselfishness,” said Mendenhall. “And if you know his parents, they’re amazing people. We share the same faith, we share the same values, and when Va’a came to BYU, it was evident not only who he was, but why he was that way, and that’s because of his parents. He was an absolute joy to coach.”

Earlier this season, Mendenhall let loose with a swear word in a team meeting at Virginia, and it ended up making headlines. He lives in that kind of scrutiny, and he later apologized publicly.

“They both have been known to let out a few bad words, but by and large, both are incredibly controlled and reserved. I’ve actually been pretty impressed with them at how angry and stressful it can be at the level they have to be,” said Va’a. “Honestly, I’ve heard them swear just a handful of times combined for both.”

Thursday will not be the first time college football has seen Mormon coaches square off in bowl games. Mendenhall and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham met in the Las Vegas Bowl two years ago. Whittingham also played against Niumatalolo in the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl, leading the Utes to victory.

Earlier this season, Niumatalolo had a once-in-a-lifetime experience seeing both of his sons play in the Beehive State when Navy had a weekend off. He saw Va’a play for BYU against Wisconsin in the afternoon, then traveled to Rice-Eccles to see his youngest son Ali’i play for Utah against San Jose State.

“It was the first time I’ve ever done that and it will probably be my last,” Niumatalolo told reporters who cover Navy. “It was just an awesome experience.”

Mendenhall also had a father-son moment this season and shared that with the media at a Military Bowl press conference Dec. 6. Mendenhall compared saying goodbye to his seniors to the day he saw his son Cutter leave for a two-year church mission to Uruguay the week before.

“We walked to the airport, checked him in and waited for him go through security. Our faces were pressed against the glass watching the bags go through, and the reality that he was leaving and there was going to be this (two-year) separation … it was, wow.”

Mendenhall said Navy under Niumatalolo is all that is right with college football. “He runs a class program, represents values that I think are great for young people and the game and I couldn’t think of a more worthy or fitting opponent.”

Navy comes into this bowl the underdog due to a season hampered by injuries and losses in its last three games with Notre Dame, Houston and rival Army (14-13). But at one point in the season, Navy was ranked No. 24 in the country.

Generally speaking, Mendenhall has been very successful defending option attacks like Navy, with impressive results against the likes of Georgia Tech. But after a 5-1 start, Virginia has lost five of its last six in a tough ACC closing stretch.

David Teel, a columnist for the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, says Cavalier fans are encouraged with Mendenhall’s work but they need to see more.

“When you haven’t been to a bowl since 2011, the fans are genuinely encouraged,” said Teel. “However, there is a healthy skepticism, which is reflected in attendance. It’s just going to take some time for any new coach, be it Bronco Mendenhall or anyone else, to win back the fan base.”

Virginia averaged fewer than 40,000 for home games in a stadium that seats more than 61,000. “They only had one crowd over 40,000, and that was for its chief rival Virginia Tech.

“I think there is optimism and skepticism alike,” said Teel.

Bronco’s unique and different approach has piqued the interest of Virginians. “He is different. Everything is earned, not given. He’s come up with this thing at Virginia where you have to earn your number, a process you have to go through in training camp. I think it took time for the players to transition to that and also the fan base, but from everything I can see folks are slowly but surely coming around to it because this season they saw improvement,” said Teel.

When Virginia went to No. 3 Miami in late November and led by two touchdowns, Mendenhall ordered an onside kick after a Cavs score. It backfired, but the guts it took resonated with Virginia fans.

“If I’m a Virginia fan,” explained Teel, “I’m not sure what the reaction was with the masses to that particular move, but leading with a two-touchdown lead and what did he do? He tried an onside kick, just knowing you are trying to fuel that momentum and get even further ahead. It backfired and Miami recovered the kick and went down to score and cut it to 7, but I think that kind of mentality, in wanting to be aggressive, knowing you aren’t the most talented team that day, trying to create a dynamic, it's very telling about his approach.”

Mendenhall loves so much about the military and the idea of fighters pulling for one another in the trenches, laying it all on the line. Niumatalolo’s life is spent teaching Midshipmen, future sailors of America’s Navy.

Somehow, it is fitting these two men get to enjoy their moment in the sun at a bowl named Military.