What was Bronco really like? Nine former players share insights, memories and what they hope happens Saturday

Having left BYU after 11 seasons at the helm for Virginia in 2015, Bronco Mendenhall returns with the Cavaliers on Saturday to meet also 6-2 BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium

Former BYU quarterback Riley Nelson spent four years in Provo playing for coach Bronco Mendenhall and trying to figure out what makes the man tick.

“I never succeeded at that,” he said, laughing. “I can’t help you with that.”

Ex-Cougars linebacker Bryan Kehl seconded that notion, calling the now sixth-year Virginia coach “definitely very much an enigma to this day.”

Added Kehl: “He is his own person. He is unique, peculiar, just so many adjectives you could use about him. But he is also awesome, a great person. Anybody that knows him knows that.”

With Mendenhall and his Cavaliers making their long-awaited visit back to BYU on Saturday (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) for the first time since he left the school in 2015 after serving as the Cougars’ head coach for 11 seasons, the Deseret News asked nine of his former players — including Nelson and Kehl — for their insights on what he was really like, what he meant to them, their favorite or most memorable interaction with him, and how they would like to see him treated by the LaVell Edwards Stadium crowd on his homecoming.

Here’s what Nelson, Kehl, offensive lineman Nick Alletto, defensive backs Andrew Rich and Michael Shelton and receivers Nate Meikle, Colby Pearson, Devon Blackmon and Mitchell Juergens had to say. Some of the responses have been edited for brevity.

Riley Nelson, quarterback (2009-12)

BYU quarterback Riley Nelson celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Tulane during game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009. Nelson on Mendenhall: “Bronco was unequivocally and unmistakably invested in me and the team.” | Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

What he meant to me: “Bronco was unequivocally and unmistakably invested in me and the team. He set very high standards. He didn’t deviate from those standards. He pushed us all to meet those standards, but also helped us become more than we probably would have become on our own.

“From my standpoint, all you can ask from a coach is to give it his all, to prepare the game plan, and to prepare the team to be ready to compete on Saturdays, and Bronco did as good of a job on that as I have seen of any coach I have ever been around,” Nelson said.

Memorable moment: Nelson’s favorite on-field memory was coming off the field after he led BYU to a 27-24 come-from-behind win over his former school, Utah State, and slapping Mendenhall on the rear end as if the coach was just another teammate.

“Bronco isn’t a congratulatory butt-slap guy. He kinda whipped around and looked at me, and then he saw it was me and done in celebration and he gave me a little smirk, as if to say, ‘No one ever does that to Bronco.’”

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Off the field, “I just remember him walking around the football offices barefoot, in the summer. But my biggest takeaway is probably over the whole four years of being coached by him, trying to figure that dude out. I was unsuccessful in being able to do that, discover what motivates him, what makes him tick. There was one thing I did figure out: He absolutely loves ball and it was fun to be coached by him.”

Fan reception: “He won’t want something warm and flowery. I don’t think he should be booed, either. I think somewhat neutral, with the same respect we should give any visiting coach. There is obviously that gratitude for the contributions he made to BYU football, which are not insignificant. He came in and brought the program out of what were some turbulent times and reestablished that level of excellence that everybody had become accustomed to during the LaVell (Edwards) years.”

Bryan Kehl, linebacker (2002, 2005-07)

Bryan Kehl works out at BYU March 29, 2007. Kehl on Mendenhall: “Accountability, discipline, excellence. Those and so many other things describe Bronco, but the word I use the most is probably intensity.” | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What he meant to me: “Accountability, discipline, excellence. Those and so many other things describe Bronco, but the word I use the most is probably intensity. He is just an intense individual in everything that he does.

“He might get a bad rap (in the media) because of the way he comes off. When people see him on TV and in interviews, that is not really reflective of who he is. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the man. I loved being coached by him. He is one of those people that you really look up to and admire.”

Memorable moment: Kehl said in the spring of 2003 he was preparing to go on a church mission when Mendenhall was BYU’s new defensive coordinator and Gary Crowton had the Cougars practicing at 6 a.m.

“Bronco is out there in shorts, frozen snot, cold as can be, and on a routine play I slipped and landed on my elbow and hurt my shoulder and I laid there for a second. Bronco comes running over and yells, get up, get up, get up, go after the ball. That was the first coaching I ever got from him, and it stands out because it is a great metaphor in life: You slip, you fall, you don’t just lay there and feel bad for yourself. You get back in the game. That was Bronco’s mantra.”

Fan reception: “If he doesn’t get the warmest reception from BYU fans, I will be absolutely disappointed in our fan base. He was a huge contributor to where our program is right now. He pulled us off the dung heap of three terrible losing seasons and delivered a great steppingstone for Kalani (Sitake) and the staff that is there right now doing great things.”

Nick Alletto, offensive lineman (2004, 2007-10)

BYU football player Nick Alletto practices in Provo, Utah, Friday, Aug. 20, 2010. Alleto on Mendenhall: “The first thing that comes to mind is how scared I was of him. He was not the warmest person.” | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What he meant to me: “The first thing that comes to mind is how scared I was of him. He was not the warmest person. As gregarious and approachable as Kalani (Sitake) is, coach Mendenhall was not that. The way he presented himself in the media was also how he presented himself in the meeting room, and it was pretty stoic and serious all the time. But I really enjoyed playing for him.”

Memorable moment: A couple interactions stand out for Alletto. One came after a practice when he told Mendenhall that defensive coordinator Jaime Hill was encouraging defensive players to get into fights with offensive players in practice, and wasn’t fostering the right environment for teamwork and camaraderie.

“Coach Mendenhall just sat there and stared at me, then said, ‘Are you done?’ And I said yes, and I turned around and walked away. I thought I would get in trouble for that, but he never said anything to me after that. The next week was when coach Hill was no longer a coach (after a 2010 loss at Utah State).”

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Another was in 2009, when Alletto learned he had Crohn’s disease. Because it wasn’t considered a football-related malady, BYU couldn’t cover the cost of medication. A couple weeks later, the head athletic trainer told Alletto that Mendenhall offered to pay for the medicine the remainder of the time he was in the program.

“He didn’t let people in, but that exterior wasn’t fully who he was,” Alletto said. “I think most players believe they became better people because of playing for him.”

Fan reception: “I hope he gets a warm reception with lots of applause and kindness. I think he was one of the best things that has happened to the program since LaVell Edwards, and I was sad when he decided to leave. Of course, I completely understood, and it is not like I hold that against him. I am glad that he is finally going to return to LaVell Edwards Stadium. I hope he feels welcome.”

Andrew Rich, defensive back (2008-10)

BYU’s Andrew Rich, left, intercepts a pass during his playing days at BYU. Rich on Mendenhall: “He is always someone that I looked up to in the way he carried himself.” | Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

What he meant to me: “Man, there are a lot of good things I think about when I think about Bronco. First one I would say is role model. He is always someone that I looked up to in the way he carried himself. He was always a great friend and advocate and my biggest fan and wanted me to be successful. He went above the beyond the call of just a college football coach to help me become that.”

Memorable moment: Rich remembers how Mendenhall refused to let players quit in 2010, his senior season, after the loss to Utah State that resulted in the firing of defensive coordinator Jaime Hill.

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“How he celebrated the little victories that we would have, whether they were in practice, or games, sticks out. Everything became important. Every rep, every snap, every game, every practice, it was important and watched and celebrated or coached really hard,” Rich said. “Attention to detail is something that I learned from him. During that rough stretch, I just appreciate him hanging in there and coaching as hard as he could even though we weren’t going to a big bowl game and it wasn’t a 10-win season.”

Rich also remembers running into Mendenhall at a hotel in Newport Beach, California, a few years ago.

“There is Bronco and he’s got a wetsuit on and he’s carrying a surfboard, and he is all by himself, and he says he’s going to go surfing, even though it is raining outside,” Rich said. “Anyone that played for him loved him, for the most part. There may be a few guys that didn’t, probably because he is a straight shooter and told them something they didn’t want to hear.”

Fan reception: “I hope that people will be cheering loud when they talk about Bronco, or announce Bronco, because he is someone that took over during a rough period that BYU had. He installed a lot of the values and principles the university had. He was a guy that represented the university and its values very well. He expected great things from his players and coaches, academically as well as athletically, and he achieved that.”

Rich has a sister who lives in Charlottesville, so he visits annually and always makes a point of visiting some of the staff members who accompanied Mendenhall to Virginia, such as defensive coordinator Nick Howell.

“It is going to be like my two parents divorced and are playing each other. That’s what it is — these friends that I want to be successful in every way, and then a university that I love, playing against each other,” Rich said. “I hope (BYU) beats them, though.”

Nate Meikle, receiver (2004-06)

BYU’s Nathan Meikle makes a catch during passing and catching drills at BYU football practice. Aug. 23, 2006.
BYU’s Nathan Meikle makes a catch during passing and catching drills at BYU football practice. Aug. 23, 2006. Meikle on Mendenhall: “He holds everybody accountable for every play and that is not always the case with all coaches. Some coaches let things slide.” | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

What he meant to me: “I think how much I love him, because he expects so much of you. He believes in you, but he holds people to such a high standard. He doesn’t play favorites. One of the first things I think of too, is just accountability. That was one of his first mantras at BYU: accountability, discipline, effort. He holds everybody accountable for every play and that is not always the case with all coaches. Some coaches let things slide.”

Memorable moment: When Meikle was playing for Snow College, the Badgers stopped at the University of New Mexico where Mendenhall was coaching and got a tour of the stadium from the former Badger.

“He was defensive coordinator at UNM and he gave us a little five-minute speech. All of my teammates at Snow, we had never heard of him, and we were all saying, ‘Omigosh, I would love to play for that guy.’ Sure enough, two years later, I was,” Meikle said.

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Another great memory for the receiver who would go on to become the sideline reporter on radio broadcasts and is now a professor at Kansas University came after he shined in the Las Vegas Bowl loss to California during Mendenhall’s first year.

“He called me a few days later, right before Christmas, and put me on scholarship, so that was a highlight for me,” Meikle said. “I knew then I had his trust and approval. It was validation for me.”

Fan reception: “I think what he has earned is a standing ovation as one of the winningest coaches in BYU history,” Meikle said. “Without him and the success he had, I don’t think BYU goes independent, which makes it that much harder to get into the Big 12 at this point. I think he deserves all the respect BYU fans could possibly give him. Then the game starts and you hope BYU wins by 40, just because we are BYU fans more than Virginia fans, although we all hope Virginia wins every other game the rest of the season.”

Michael Shelton, defensive back (2014-18)

BYU’s Michael Shelton tires to avoid Fresno State’s Arron Mosby during game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. Shelton on Mendenhall: “From a mental standpoint, Bronco challenged all his players on and off the field, and that motivation carried into the real world.” | Gary Kazanjian, Associated Press

What he meant to me: “I wouldn’t be where I am without him. I definitely appreciate him and his staff. Same for Kalani, who I also played for. I appreciate both of those guys. They both gave me incredible opportunities as far as my career there.

“From a mental standpoint, Bronco challenged all his players on and off the field, and that motivation carried into the real world.”

Memorable moment: One particular moment didn’t stand out for Shelton, but he does remember being surprised at how much different Sitake was than Mendenhall.

“You kinda get the best of both worlds with Bronco and Kalani,” Shelton said. “You got your dad, who was hard on you, just always on your case about what you should be doing, what you shouldn’t be doing, things like that. That’s Bronco. I would hate to compare Kalani to a mother, but he is on the softer side as far as compassion and love and just wanting you to be your best. He was more understanding. Kalani is more of a players coach than Bronco, but I like both of them.”

Fan reception: “I think the fans should definitely appreciate what he did for the program, and what he did there, the guys he helped there,” Shelton said. “From an appreciation standpoint, he did a lot for everyone and they should definitely give him a standing ovation. Some guys are in the NFL because of him recruiting them to BYU, guys like Fred Warner, Jamaal Williams, Sione Takitaki.”

Colby Pearson, receiver (2013-16)

BYU wide receiver Colby Pearson pulls in a pass during practice on spring practice. Pearson on Mendenhall: “He taught that you had to have balance in other things in your life in order to be successful on the football field as well.” | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

What he meant to me: “It was a lot of fun playing for Bronco. He taught that you had to have balance in other things in your life in order to be successful on the football field as well. Being a young college kid, we would complain about how Bronco made us clean our locker room every day, things like that. But when you get out and see the big picture you realize the reasons he does what he does and the way he thinks like he does.

“He was one of the reasons I came to BYU, because of the way he treated walk-ons. I was at the point where I was picking between BYU and Boise State. Coach (Ben) Cahoon was recruiting me and when he left, I kinda got cut off. I was on the verge of going to Boise State, and I got a call from Bronco and he (offered a preferred walk-on spot). That was the biggest factor, that phone call he gave me, on why I decided to go to BYU later on in the recruiting process.”

Memorable moment: Having been put on scholarship before his junior season in 2015, Pearson vividly remembers the day Mendenhall announced he was leaving for Virginia and how worried he was about his senior season under a new coaching staff.

After the 2015 Las Vegas Bowl, a 35-28 loss to Utah, he says he and Mendenhall “had a special moment” when he thanked the coach for that late phone call to a “small-town kid from Blackfoot, Idaho,” and the eventual awarding of a scholarship.

“That was the best moment, just one on one, and I thanked him for everything,” Pearson said. “It was also a cool moment when he brought me into his office and let me know I was finally on scholarship. So I had a couple really good moments with him.”

Fan reception: “I think it should be a warm welcome for Bronco and all those guys like (Robert Anae, Garett Tujague, Jason Beck, Mark Atuaia). Hopefully I can go down on the field and see those guys, tell them hello. I think they should get a great welcome. They did a lot of positive stuff for the place, man. I hope BYU finishes on top by quite a ways. I hope the score is not even close. But I want them to get a warm welcome there at LaVell.”

Devon Blackmon, receiver (2014-15)

Wide receiver Devon Blackmon runs the ball during a BYU football scrimmage at BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. Blackmon on Mendenhall: “He was for the players, but because of the honor code, he had to do what he had to do.” | Michelle Tessier, Deseret News

What he meant to me: “Bronco is a good dude, and that staff he has are a bunch of good dudes — coach Anae, coach Tujague, coach Beck, coach Atuaia, our old running backs coach. 

“Bronco’s hands were tied in a lot of areas. He was for the players, but because of the honor code, he had to do what he had to do. So like I said, I respect him, and I am glad he coached me.

“There are no hard feelings for BYU or anything like that. BYU has always showed love, especially the coaches, the school president (Kevin Worthen) and Tom Holmoe. I love BYU. Bronco did a great job up there.”

Memorable moment: Blackmon says a lot of people think he got sideways with Mendenhall for wearing an earring to practice, but it was actually another coach that “snitched” and had a problem with it. 

“Saturday is going to be amazing,” Blackmon said. “I think it is going to be a good look for everybody. It is just going to be good to see all those guys and see BYU embrace them and give them their flowers.”

Fan reception: “I expect nothing but the best for Bronco and those guys from Cougar fans. It is going to be great for him to get embraced by the BYU crowd and get embraced by his old players, even by Kalani. Because when Bronco left, it opened up the Kalani era. Kalani is a great coach, too. That is somebody I would run through a brick wall for as well. The energy is going to be freakin’ crazy. The atmosphere is going to be crazy.”

Mitchell Juergens, receiver (2010, 2013-16)

BYU wide receiver Mitchell Juergens looks to make a catch during the team’s practice and scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016. Juergens on Mendenhall: “When I see Bronco, I just know that his guys are dialed in, that his guys will give 100% effort every single play of every single game.” | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

What he meant to me: “Bronco was all about effort. When I came back off my mission, I truly felt like as a walk-on I could make an impact as long as the effort was there. Practice after practice, game after game, Bronco would highlight amazing displays of effort alone.

“When I see Bronco, I just know that his guys are dialed in, that his guys will give 100% effort every single play of every single game. That’s just the standard that Bronco sets for his team.”

Memorable moment: Juergens was on the radio postgame show with Mendenhall after catching the Hail Mary pass in 2015 that beat Boise State when the coach said on the air that Juergens was single and looking for someone to date.

“He actually had people contact him and he would come to practice and give me sticky notes with some girls’ phone numbers on them,” said Juergens, who is now married. “It didn’t work out with the specific girls that he set me up with. But that was a memorable moment with a side of Bronco that you don’t see too much. He has a good personality, actually. He can be a funny guy. Mostly, he is a caring guy who loves his players.”

Fan reception: “I think he should be received very well. It is going to be very easy for fans to remember what he did and acknowledge and praise him for what he did in his years at BYU. During his career here, some fans got carried away with wanting a change because it is hard being an independent. A lot of times people view perfection, or not perfection, and it is easy to fall short there. But I think in hindsight everybody is pleased with what he did at BYU and the football teams he put together.”