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‘BYU is near and dear to my heart’: What Bronco Mendenhall had to say about facing former team

Both teams are 6-2 heading into the showdown at LaVell Edwards Stadium, where Mendenhall roamed the sidelines for 11 seasons as the Cougars’ head coach before taking job with Virginia

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Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall looks on during game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sept. 18, 2021.

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall looks on during game against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. Mendenhall returns Saturday, as coach of the visiting Virginia Cavaliers.

Gerry Broome, Associated Press

If coaching at BYU for 13 years — 11 as the Cougars’ head coach — and six years at Virginia has taught Bronco Mendenhall anything, it is to control what he can control and not worry about the rest.

BYU, Virginia TV

Cougars on the air


Virginia (6-2)

at BYU (6-2)

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT

At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo

TV: ESPN2

Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM


That’s why Mendenhall told reporters via Zoom on Monday that he’s not really worried about what kind of reception he will get from the LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd on Saturday night (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) when his 6-2 Virginia Cavaliers face the 6-2 Cougars in his long-awaited homecoming game.

“You know, I don’t have expectations. It is a weird space, because we are arriving to play a football game, and I am charged with helping my current team, and not everyone is doing the same thing. So yeah, to expect or want more than that, I don’t,” Mendenhall said. “That is not a controllable thing, and to make more of that, or spend more time or energy or effort into that is not (productive).”

“It is an amazing experience to now be able to return. I will always be grateful for the opportunities I was given, for the institution — talking about BYU — and the unique set of values that align with my faith, and the development of young people.” — Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall on returning to Provo

Having gone 99-43 at BYU as head coach from 2005 to 2015 before leaving for Virginia and taking 14 people and their families with him to Charlottesville, Mendenhall deserves nothing but love and appreciation, said the man who replaced him, current BYU coach Kalani Sitake.

“I have tons of respect for Bronco Mendenhall and what he did here at BYU and the type of man he is, the leader he is,” Sitake said. “He produces great people in his football programs. It has been a pleasure for me to be here and to take over as a new head coach in a program that he established and laid the foundation at. He was able to do some really great things here, and we have a deep appreciation and gratitude for him.”

Mendenhall opened his half-hour weekly press briefing by saying “BYU is near and dear to my heart” and noted that his father, Paul, and his brother, Mat, played for the Cougars and he grew up near Provo in American Fork.

“It is an amazing experience to now be able to return,” Mendenhall said. “… I will always be grateful for the opportunities I was given, for the institution — talking about BYU — and the unique set of values that align with my faith, and the development of young people.”

Mendenhall said coaching at Virginia — where he has gone 36-34 after taking over an ACC cellar-dweller — has “been one of the most amazing experiences of my life” and that he, his wife Holly and his three sons — Cutter, Breaker and Raider — “love Charlottesville, love this institution, love everything about this journey we are on and all the hard work it has taken to restore and build and return a program to what it once was and continue to add value in that way.”

His oldest son served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Uruguay, while his second son is currently serving in the Layton, Utah, mission and the third son was recently called to serve in Pocatello, Idaho, and will begin on Jan. 3. Running backs coach Mark Atuaia’s son is serving in the Salt Lake City North mission.

“So we come this way, and the church sent all of our kids back to where we came from,” Mendenhall said.

It won’t just be a homecoming for Mendenhall. Virginia’s staff includes former BYU coaches and/or players Robert Anae (offensive coordinator), Nick Howell (defensive coordinator), Atuaia (running backs), Jason Beck (quarterbacks), Shane Hunter (safeties), Kelly Poppinga (co-defensive coordinator), Garett Tujague (offensive line) and Matt Edwards (director of football analytics and grandson of the late LaVell Edwards).

“I have tons of respect for Bronco Mendenhall and what he did here at BYU and the type of man he is, the leader he is. He produces great people in his football programs. — BYU coach Kalani Sitake

“I invited 14 families, or people, and all 14 accepted,” Mendenhall said. “And we have, from the statistics given me, the most stable staff in college football, and at that time we had the most little kids in college football. So it was the giant reverse Lewis & Clark migration. And man, it was a hard transition. Young moms, and little kids, and the moms’ moms are still back in Provo. Man, that’s tough. Because that is the babysitter. And that is a huge thing.”

When he left BYU at the end of the 2015 season, Mendenhall said he didn’t want to return to Provo to play the Cougars and wanted the game taken off the schedule. Obviously, he didn’t get his wish. But now he’s OK with it, even if the nonconference game takes his team away from the ACC Coastal Division race.

“I do remember when I was announced as leaving BYU (saying) I wouldn’t play this game. I didn’t know how to make it any clearer, but that didn’t happen,” he said. “I learned I am not the one that decides. I don’t know all the workings of it. But I certainly know now in the world of college football, the resources and the revenue drive so much of it, and entertainment drives so much of it. And whatever happened contractually, I wasn’t aware. … But here we are. And that’s OK.”

merlin_1634525.jpg

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall shouts instruction during the BYU Blue and White game in Provo Saturday, March 29, 2014.

Jeffrey_Allred, Deseret News

Mendenhall, 55, said he is “as comfortable as I can be” now with facing his former team because few, if any, players are left from 2015. He did recruit defensive tackle Uriah Leiataua and quarterback Jaren Hall to BYU, but they arrived on campus long after he left.

“That makes it easier,” he said. “Not easy, but easier. … I can’t say that I am at ease, but once it was clear that the game was going to be played, early on, then yeah, it was going to be played. It is six years. Time adds perspective and it also sometimes has your heart grow fonder, but also times it allows separation. Sometimes it just takes time.”

Mendenhall said the half-dozen years since he patrolled the sidelines at LES worked to soften the discomfort of returning.

“I have had six years to go through all the emotions. And my job is to do the very best I can for my team. And hopefully be an example and teach principles and guideline that will help these kids in their lives,” he said. “I really can’t control what kind of welcome I do or don’t receive. But what I can express is gratitude, and that’s what I intend to do, and I will do the very best I can to prepare my team so they can have success and continue what we have in this program this year.”

Asked by a Virginia media member about playing at altitude — Provo sits 4,551 feet above sea level — and kicking off at 10:15 p.m. EDT, Mendenhall said he is usually in bed by 9:30 p.m. and may “come out of the tunnel with an (oxygen) mask on,” but won’t make a big deal of it to his team.

“The more you make of it, the more it is something,” he said.

Mendenhall said he is “thrilled” to see BYU entering the Big 12 in 2023, but acknowledged that he hasn’t paid much attention to the football-playing Cougars the past six years and hadn’t seen them play a game until watching film on Monday.

“And so I am glad that there has been some realignment, and that BYU is acknowledged, and I think it is great for the institution and it is great for college football. Man, did I want that to happen bad when I was there, and it is great to see it come to fruition. Yeah, pretty cool.” — Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall on the Cougars joining the Big 12

“To have the year they had through the pandemic (BYU was 11-1), man, (doing) that was tough. And to put a schedule together that they did, and to have success, was awesome, and man, I was probably the most aggressive in the push for the Big 12 in my time. And (I was) probably told to tone it down a little bit, at some point.”

Mendenhall famously said football independence was “not sustainable” shortly after the Cougars went rogue in 2011, and didn’t back down from that belief on Monday.

“And so I am glad that there has been some realignment, and that BYU is acknowledged, and I think it is great for the institution and it is great for college football,” he said. “Man, did I want that to happen bad when I was there, and it is great to see it come to fruition. Yeah, pretty cool.”

When Mendenhall left, he noted that he made a recommendation for his replacement to athletic director Tom Holmoe, but would not divulge that suggestion to the media six years ago. Well, mum’s still the word.

“No, I won’t say,” he said. “But BYU has earned their way in after all these years into a Power Five conference. I remember the University of Utah leaving to the Pac-12 and TCU going to the Big 12 and we chose to go independent, and I remember at that time saying this is not sustainable and I was kinda doing my own personal lobbying behind the scenes for the Big 12. Again, to see that happen, and the qualification happen for that is really fun.”

The former Snow College and Oregon State safety said Sitake’s success — he’s 44-28 at BYU — has been “fun to see” and it was great to see a defensive coordinator rise to head coach, just like he did.

“There is a similar path there,” he said.

And on Saturday, those paths will converge in Provo. Because it really was out of his control.