Former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall’s reception from Cougar fans when he returned to LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday night was as warm and friendly as almost everyone expected it would be.
From the moment he stepped off the team bus and accepted a lei from a former BYU events employee a couple hours before the game to his entrance for pregame warmups to his entrance on the field minutes before kickoff, Mendenhall received applause and appreciative cheers.
“Cougar Nation still loves Mendenhall,” read one sign greeting Mendenhall’s entrance through the northwest gate (One sign in the stadium wasn’t as warm, reading “Bronco’s Nightmare,” referring to the game being played on Halloween Eve).
BYU fans welcome Bronco back to Provo pic.twitter.com/uFz7DrkdjS— Jay Drew (@drewjay) October 31, 2021
BYU fans greet Bronco Mendenhall in his return to Provo. pic.twitter.com/U0QRA9L6Q5— Jay Drew (@drewjay) October 31, 2021
Mendenhall was 56-11 at LES in 11 seasons as BYU’s coach from 2005-15, including undefeated home records in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2015 — his final season in Provo. He was 99-43 overall as BYU’s coach, the second-winningest coach in program history behind the legendary Edwards.
Just before the coin toss, BYU’s video screen displayed the words “Welcome Back Bronco” and the showing drew a nice round of applause from the crowd.
A separated screen showing all the former BYU assistants/players who are now with Mendenhall at Virginia drew a similar warm welcome from the crowd.
When he walked onto the field for pregame warmups, Mendenhall shared a hug with a couple of his players. Later, former BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae walked down the ramp and feigned as a boxer with a couple players.
Former offensive line coach Garett Tujague chanted “Let’s go, let’s go,” as he came onto the field for warmups.
Shortly after, Mendenhall greeted BYU coach Kalani Sitake at midfield and the two shook hands and had a lengthy conversation. They hugged when their chat concluded.
Former BYU football staffers Justin Anderson and Patrick Hickman arrived first, and were met by former BYU running back Wayne Latu.
Before the game, one of Mendenhall’s players at BYU, RB Harvey Unga, who is now on Sitake’s staff, said the returning coach encouraged him to go into coaching.
“I am grateful for him,” Unga said. “Bronco has been a great person, role model and someone I appreciate it.”
Unga says Mendenhall still sends him birthday greetings via text.
“Stuff like that might seem small, but to me it goes a long ways,” Unga said. “I am excited to see him and the rest of their crew — former teammates of mine and former coaches of mine. It will be fun.”
Other former BYU players and/or staffers such as Virginia safeties coach Shane Hunter, co-defensive coordinators Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga and quarterbacks coach Jason Beck also chatted with their current BYU counterparts in pregame warmups.
Receiver Gunner Romney, who was injured in BYU’s 21-19 win over Washington State last week, missed the game Saturday due to a knee injury. Sitake said in his pregame radio remarks that his knee needs more time to heal, but the injury is not season-ending.
Center James Empey and linebacker Chaz Ah You were also held out with undisclosed injuries.
Several players who have been out for a couple weeks stayed on the sidelines: Right tackle Harris LaChance, defensive tackle Lorenzo Fauatea and safeties George Udo and Ammon Hannemann were held out again.
The Cougars don’t play another FBS opponent until Nov. 20 at Georgia Southern.