Bronco Mendenhall’s return to Provo this Saturday is an intriguing event for myriad reasons as he brings his University of Virginia team to town riding a four-game winning streak.
Bronco has always been a fascinating figure to me, from the first time I met him to his last press conference. For the record, I admire Mendenhall. He’s tough, creative and dedicated to his craft. He was always a great interview and I always thought he had insightful angles to write about. Immediately upon becoming head coach at BYU, he rescued the program from three straight losing seasons and made a bowl game with a 6-6 record.
There are so many memories of Mendenhall and his time in Provo, his older brother Mat (BYU defensive end) and his parents. The family has been a staple in Utah County for decades. A surfer, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle rider, and a horseman, Bronco was his own man. Still is.
I remember how he worked behind the scenes to get Kyle Van Noy admitted to BYU. Van Noy went on to win Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.
His emphasis on community service, to focus on issues bigger than football, was a trademark, as was his Thursday’s Heroes program to elevate those in need. His players are fiercely loyal to him because they know he expected the most out of every one of them, not just every day, but every play.
Here are my top 10 Bronco Mendenhall moments at BYU, in no particular order.
I remember when Gary Crowton hired Mendenhall from New Mexico and what happened during one of the first spring scrimmages of 2001. Normal scrimmages go about 70 to 80 plays but neither Crowton (offense) nor Mendenhall (defense) would call it quits. Crowton wanted to score and Mendenhall kept denying momentum. That scrimmage went more than 120 plays and it was one of the craziest nongame practice sessions I’ve ever covered.
Only a Holly would wear red in December at the announcement of her husband as BYU’s head coach in 2005, but this Montana horse lover was a gem. Affable, outgoing, funny, the yin to Bronco’s yang, I found her fascinating, open, kind, genuine and not afraid to speak her mind. She opened up her home in Alpine to reporters and never put on a facade. Salt of the earth kind of woman.
Harline is still open
In his second season (2006), an 11-2 and MWC title season, the final regular-season game came down to one remarkable play with just seconds left against rival Utah in Rice-Eccles Stadium. John Beck took what seemed an eternity to run back and forth then throw across his body to a wide-open Jonny Harline in the end zone for an 11-yard TD and a 33-31 win with no time left on the clock. That play remains one of the most iconic plays and finishes in BYU history.
The following year in Provo, a No. 23-ranked BYU had Max Hall looking at fourth-and-18 deep in Cougars territory. Hall’s favorite target, Austin Collie, made a double move, a stop and go down the sidelines on Utes cornerback Brice McCain. Hall stepped out of a disintegrating pocket and found Collie for the conversion at midfield. A few plays later Harvey Unga scored to give BYU a 15-10 lead. Hall found Collie for a two-point conversion and an ultimate 17-10 victory for back-to-back wins where Collie explained later, “Magic happens.”
It was Sept. 5, 2009, the season opener in the brand new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, when Max Hall ran off the field at halftime predicting a Cougars win. To the delight of Texas fans and Big 12 fans all over the country, No. 3 Oklahoma could not overcome Bronco’s bullyball that stymied the Sooners and took out QB Sam Bradford after a jarring blitz, a defense that featured Jan Jorgensen and Andrew Rich. BYU defeated Oklahoma 14-13 in one of the biggest wins in school history.
In 2010 in Logan, the Aggies handed BYU its fourth-straight loss (Florida State, Air Force, Nevada, USU) and the next morning I got a text from defensive coordinator Jaime Hill, informing me that Bronco had fired him. It was a gutsy move. Mendenhall then took over duties as defensive coordinator, called the plays, and beat San Diego State on the road the next week, 24-21. That team ended up 7-6 but set records in a 52-24 win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
Max Hall, the winningest BYU QB of all time, let it fly on Nov. 28, 2009, in LaVell Edwards Stadium, his final home game. Again, it was the season finale against rival Utah. Hall found tight end Andrew George for a dramatic 25-yard touchdown pass in overtime to defeat Utah 26-23. Afterward, Hall expressed his hatred for Utah, something he apologized for, but to this day, there have been repercussions in the form of slogans, T-shirts, bumper stickers. If one believes in fate, it triggered a nine-game Utah win streak.
Taysom’s Texas takedowns
Taysom Hill left a storied mark on BYU football under Mendenhall with his performance in two back-to-back wins over Texas — one in Austin, Texas, the other in Provo. Hill had 259 yards rushing on the Texas defense in 2013 with touchdown runs of 68, 20 and 26 yards in Provo. The following year before a crowd of 93,363 in Memorial Stadium, he had 99 yards rushing and three touchdowns, the longest being 30 yards. BYU won those games 40-21 and 41-7. Mendenhall’s two Texas wins gives BYU a 4-1 historical advantage over the SEC-bound Longhorns.
Putting the hurt on the Ducks
In 2006, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti told the media in a press conference at the Las Vegas Bowl that 10-2 BYU was not good enough to compete in the Pac-10. Those were fighting words for Mendenhall’s Cougars who had a lot of weapons in John Beck, career rushing leader Curtis Brown and tight end Jonny Harline. Mendenhall’s team smoked the Ducks 38-8 that night. Beck passed for 375, Brown ran for 120 and two TDs and Harline earned MVP honors with nine catches for 181 yards. It may have been the biggest proof of the theory “Oregon is soft.”
Mangum’s Hail Mary
The trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, was historic. So was the ending of the 2015 BYU-Nebraska game in Mendenhall’s final season as BYU’s coach. At the end of this game, with no time remaining on the clock, Tanner Mangum, in his first college game after returning from a church mission, sprinted out of the pocket to his right and fired a Hail Mary toward the end zone, where 6-foot-6 receiver Mitch Mathews caught the ball sandwiched between defenders and fell over the goal line for the winning touchdown — a 33-28 victory. A big-time win in Big Ten territory for Mendenhall.
At the end of his stint, he was fighting for additional money for his program to buoy up academic advisers and health and nutrition programs. Some of that positioning as a head coach ended in futility. He was also asked to tone down his advocacy in public for inclusion at a Power Five conference because he declared independence was not sustainable. When the Virginia job offer came, he more than tripled his salary and that of the assistant coaches he took with him.
Mendenhall coached BYU to 99 wins in 11 years with two MWC championships. He guided BYU into independence in 2010 and was an advocate for the university to make a bigger push for Power Five inclusion.
I was driving to St. George on Dec. 9, 2015, when BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae called me. I had covered him since he and his brother Brad had come to BYU from Laie, Hawaii, in the early 1980s. Anae was an offensive lineman on Edwards’ 1984 national championship team. He had accepted coaching jobs at BYU twice under Mendenhall and told me he’d accepted a job to go to Virginia with Mendenhall and was taking O-line coach Garett Tujague, running backs coach Mark Atuaia and QBs coach Jason Beck.
Today, those guys have the No. 1 passing quarterback in the country in Brennan Armstrong and the Virginia offense ranks No. 4 nationally averaging 539 yards per game.
Mendenhall should be welcomed big time for his devotion and passionate work in turning BYU’s football program around and preparing it for Big 12 inclusion.
He never lost his focus on what he thought was his mission as head coach at BYU and the directive of the university and sponsoring church.
BYU was Mendenhall’s first head coaching job. Combined with his record at Virginia the past six seasons, he is 135-77.
There are a lot of folks in his profession who’d love that kind of mark.
BYU fans should welcome this former coach. Design that he loses to your Cougars, but the man has accomplished legendary things wherever he’s been.