Bronco Mendenhall is returning to BYU for the first time since he left the school six years ago, and it is not without a touch of irony.
Mendenhall was as BYU blue as they came. His father played football for BYU. So did a brother. Mendenhall coached at BYU for 13 years, two as defensive coordinator, 11 as head coach. He preached BYU values. He embraced the honor code and the church that owned the school and everything about it. He was so gung-ho that he once announced that his players would wear messages on the backs of their uniforms in place of their names — “Spirit,” “Tradition,” “Honor” — only to back down when it became clear the players weren’t happy about it. They wore the messages for one game, homecoming.
But that was Mendenhall. He was a BYU guy. He didn’t just sell the Kool-Aid, he was drinking it.
And then he wasn’t. He suddenly left the school following the 2015 season to sign on as the head coach at Virginia. It wasn’t because he wasn’t winning — he had a won-loss record of 99-43; he had taken BYU to a bowl game in every season and five of his teams finished in the top 25 of the final polls. It wasn’t because the school showed him the door, although nobody seemed to put up much of a fight when he departed.
The problem was, the school moved the goal posts. Following his sixth season on the job (2010), the school elected to leave the Mountain West Conference and become an independent. It was BYU’s response to Utah’s departure from the Mountain West to join the Pac-12. The Cougars couldn’t find a Power Five conference that would take them, so they struck out on their own. The Cougars finished 25th in the final coaches poll of the 2011 season and never finished in the top 25 again under Mendenhall.
The move to independence led to Mendenhall’s departure.
“I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he told USA Today in February 2016. “I was trying everything I knew how to do to advance and pioneer that part. If I were to be really blunt about it, I took it as far as I could go in relation to that setting of independence.”
He continued, “There was a significant change toward the end of last season. It was pretty clear — no, that’s an understatement — it was crystal clear that I had done what I was capable of and supposed to do at BYU with the time I was there. That had maybe as much or more to do with me coming (to Virginia) as anything else.”
BYU announced last month that the school will join a conference, just weeks before Mendenhall will make his first return to Provo. The Cougars will join the Big 12 in 2023 — a move Mendenhall lobbied for when they moved to independence.
“We would love to be in the Big 12,” Mendenhall told the Austin American-Statesman in 2014. “I would love to be a member of that conference. I think that would make a lot of sense.”
Conference affiliation and the Big 12 came six years too late for Mendenhall, and he left the school to coach Virginia, which presented a challenge that was even bigger than the one he left behind. The Cavaliers had endured eight consecutive losing seasons when he became head coach. They had two more under Mendenhall, who won two games in his first season and six in his second, but the latter was enough to win a bowl berth.
The Cavaliers won eight games in Mendenhall’s third season and nine in his fourth season, and they claimed two more bowl berths (including the Orange Bowl). The Cavaliers, rebounding from a 5-5 season a year ago, will bring a 6-2 record to Provo Saturday. Mendenhall’s career head coaching record is 135-77.
After struggling through his first two seasons to right the program, Mendenhall has achieved a level of success that is similar to what he achieved at BYU — eight or nine wins per season, bowl berths, modest success in bowl games and one division championship in the Atlantic Coast Conference but no conference title.
Since 1953, Virginia has had 12 head football coaches; nine of them had losing records. Mendenhall surpassed .500 this season — he has an overall record of 36-34. He will be regarded as one of Virginia’s successful coaches, but, as he discovered at BYU, there might be limits to how high he can take the program. The Cavaliers compete in a conference that includes Clemson, North Carolina, Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech.
In August, CBS19 News reported on the culture that Mendenhall has established at Virginia Among them are “cultural cornerstones” that come in the form of writing on walls or one-liners from the coach himself — “Earned Not Given,” “Hard Things Together,” “Family First, Last and Always.”
“We hear a quote every day you’ve got to write down,” linebacker Noah Taylor told CBS. “He’ll give you something at least once a day. Keep your notebook close by when you’re around coach Mendenhall.”
Sounds like the same guy who coached in Provo for more than a decade.