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Bronco in his own words: Leaving BYU, rebuilding Virginia, not wanting to play the Cougars and what the future holds

Mendenhall has orchestrated unlikely success at Virginia. Over the past four years, he has been busy building the Cavaliers football program, which enjoyed one of its greatest seasons in school history in 2019.

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall directs his players during the second half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Clemson in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.
Gerry Broome, Associated Press

PROVO — On a relatively quiet Friday afternoon in December 2015, the stunning news broke that Bronco Mendenhall was leaving BYU after 11 seasons to take the head coaching job at the University of Virginia.

That was almost five years ago.

“It seems longer. It seems like 10 or 15. It’s hard to even remember sometimes because all of our lives are so busy,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News in a phone interview in the midst of a pandemic that makes an upcoming season anything but certain.

“In the life of a college football coach, so much happens every single day. It seems like I’ve been gone for a long time. Maybe 10 years or more.”

In reality, it’s been 15 years since Mendenhall’s first season as BYU’s head coach.

But during the past four years, he has been busy building the Cavaliers football program, which had recorded seven losing seasons in eight years prior to his arrival. In his debut season in Charlottesville, the team went 2-10.

Since then, Mendenhall orchestrated incremental success.

In 2019, U.Va. enjoyed one of its greatest seasons in school history. The Cavs captured their first Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division championship; won nine games for the first time since 2007; defeated archrival Virginia Tech for the first time in 16 years; played in the Orange Bowl; and earned a No. 25 ranking in the final coaches’ poll. Also, Virginia placed 10 players on the ACC All-Academic team.

For some perspective, in its history, which dates back to 1887, Virginia has recorded only one season of at least 10 wins (the Cavaliers went 10-3 in 1989).

Mendenhall led BYU to a 99-43 record in 11 seasons. He’s posted a 25-27 mark in four years at Virginia.

Mendenhall is one of only two active coaches in the nation to take the helm of at least two programs that were coming off a losing season and then lead those teams to a bowl game within a year or two. The other one is Alabama’s Nick Saban.

The way Mendenhall sees it, he and his wife, Holly, are builders. They love taking on the challenge of building programs — and people.

During a wide-ranging phone interview with the Deseret News, Mendenhall talked BYU and Virginia football, why he left Provo and whether there will be a football season this year.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: How has your program dealt with COVID-19 and not having your players on campus?

Bronco Mendenhall: We didn’t get spring practice this year. Really what’s happened is, there’s been extra time for recruiting. We would have been finishing spring practice this week. So we’ve had five weeks of extra time. That time has been used through recruiting. It’s redefining processes that work remotely and our daily work structure. We’re farther ahead in recruiting than we’ve ever been. But that’s only because we had the window of spring practice taken away that we were able to do that. We’ve been given a five-week head start. But we needed spring practice because we lost our quarterback (Bryce Perkins), who was 78.5% of our offense. He was much like (former BYU quarterback) Taysom Hill — a really dynamic athlete and player and how he went is how we went. We needed spring practice.

Our players were all on spring break when our institution closed down for in-person classes, and they were asked to go home from their spring break destinations. The first thing we did was send them their schedule as if they were with us. Their wake-up was at 7:30 and shower and eat breakfast. We have a team message. It’s more character-oriented and principle-driven rather than faith-specific. We call it “The Best Day Ever.” That’s from 8 to 8:15. Then they have their football meetings from 8:15 to 9. Their conditioning from 9 to 9:30. When here at U.Va., all of our practices are in the mornings as well. Their classes are 11 to 4 with a break in there for lunch. Then there’s their academic coordinator meetings and nutrition and stretching at night. We sent that schedule to them and they can have that in front of them so they can act as if they’re still here, not only in mind but in structure. That’s been really helpful.

DN: How optimistic are you that there will be a college football season?

BM: I think there will be a college football season. The two questions that remain are, when will it start and how many games will be played? I don’t see any scenario where football is not played. Could it be a September or October start? Yes. Could it be in the spring? Possibly. Could there be fewer games than 12? Yes. I don’t see any scenario where it’s not played.

DN: How gratifying was it to reach significant benchmarks for the program?

BM: Those were tangible indicators of core principles that have been in place since we arrived. When Holly and I made the decision to leave BYU, we weren’t certain for a lot of reasons what the outcome would be. But we were clear about the intent. The intent was leaving something that was known, comfortable, relatively secure and stable and successful to a complete unknown that was really just the opposite.

It wasn’t secure, it wasn’t successful, it was struggling in every area. But we were really clear that we believed and wanted to make a difference somewhere else, especially in the mission field. All of the opportunities we were given at BYU — the training, the learning and the opportunities and amazing experiences — were preparatory for the enhanced challenges that come and also the enhanced gratification that come from leaving familiarity to uncertainty. The entire first year at the University of Virginia was nothing other than trying to establish culture. What does excellence look like in attending a team meeting and arriving on time and showing up prepared? ... It wasn’t until year two that we could have enough football strategies and competencies to even make that relevant. In the first team meeting, the team really couldn’t even make eye contact. They were just in despair. There was no interest in even playing the game or being affiliated with the institution or representing it through football. It’s been an amazing and rewarding experience of building young people through the game of football.

... When you put it in context of beating our rival for the first time in many years and winning the Coastal Division championship and then having a great chance to win the Orange Bowl — not just compete in it — from where we started, it’s been very gratifying. Those are the external measures. But internally, seeing who the young people have become, probably exceeds all of those markers when I see just what’s happening. The highest grade point averages in football history here at U.Va. are happening. The most service hours ever given are happening. The Thursday’s Heroes program is captivating the community as well as the ACC. Gratifying is an understatement.

Virginia head football coach Bronco Mendenhall gets a huge hug from Thursday’s Hero Jerod Davis at the team’s indoor facility after a spring football practice in Charlottesville, Va., Thursday, April 6, 2017. Thursday’s Hero is a program Mendenhall established to honor individuals that have overcome challenges in their lives.
Steve Helber, Associated Press

DN: What was it like to go through last season after your father, Paul, passed away? What legacy has he left for you?

BM: I had an amazing experience when we were getting ready to play our season opener at Pitt — which is a rival in our league and we hadn’t beaten them yet in our three years here. My personal assistant at BYU was Ashley So’oto, married to Vic So’oto, who was a coach on my staff (at the time) and is currently an assistant at USC. Ashley attended my dad’s funeral. She came back from Virginia and it meant a lot to me that she was there. I didn’t know this was happening, but she wasn’t really aware of how strongly my father was tied into the New Zealand and Maori culture. His funeral was heavily influenced by his missionary service as well as being a mission president in New Zealand. Some of the speakers and songs reflected on the Maori culture and the language. I shared at my dad’s funeral that my last memory of my dad was as I was pulling out to leave, he came out on the front lawn with his cane. He came out and was doing the Haka on the lawn. I was just in tears. I saw it in the rearview mirror. I shared that story at the funeral. Ashley relayed that to Vic.

We have this tradition of going to the opponent’s stadium when we come off the airplane prior to going to the hotel and having an inspirational message. I was in the locker room having some quiet time. The team was walking the field. A player came and said, “You’re needed on the field.” I went out there and my team was aligned in formation and did the same Haka that my dad did, as my last memory of him. I didn’t know anything about it. It was the most beautiful gift that I ever received.

DN: What are the parallels between rebuilding BYU football and Virginia football?

BM: Lots of parallels. At BYU, there had been three losing seasons. At U.Va., the significance of losing and lack of recent tradition was much greater. The deficit was much larger. At BYU, the expectation is, and always has been, to be exceptional on the field, especially in football, then to do so with student-athletes that live the honor code and represent the institution really well. There was an expectation and a commitment early on especially to BYU’s football program and their budget and really just support of the game itself at the institution to be exceptional. At U.Va., (coach) George Welsh was at the same era as (BYU’s) LaVell Edwards. They went into the (College Football) Hall of Fame in the same class. Really, what parallels is, when George Welsh got done, the football program at U.Va. struggled for consistency and excellence. That was over a longer period of time than just three years that BYU had. I had hoped when I arrived at U.Va. that we would be able to be competitive and have a nationally ranked program within a four-year period. I was hopeful we could do it in three. But after seeing the first year, there wasn’t a single area in the program here that was not in a deficit beyond what I had ever imagined. I couldn’t find any single point of the program that was even industry standard for a Power Five program. ... It’s been a four-year process to even get to where we’re industry standard from an internal perspective. Now there’s a master plan and a capital campaign for facility upgrades and other things. That’s really mirrored what’s happened inside the program. The U.Va. build, while many parts were similar to BYU, the deficit was much, much larger and the challenge much, much greater. That’s mostly because of tradition and expectation.

DN: What’s it like to coach a Power Five program and have Power Five resources?

BM: It’s just so confirming that the Power Five is the elite level of college football. It is everything that I imagined it would be in terms of competition. Every single week, there are exceptional coaches and exceptional players — every single week. Rather than three or four games prior to or surrounding, almost trying to find any opponents you can find, which is a real challenge in independence, the four or sometimes five quality games you could get is every single week at the Power Five level. The growth and the challenge that that is for our players and staff is just invigorating, as well as the support and resources you’re given to take those challenges on.

DN: What’s the difference, in terms of expectations, between the two places?

BM: It’s just a point of reference. A lot of what happens is just through education and appreciation and acknowledgement of where programs really are and what they’re capable of at the current time — what’s really happening and why. The great thing about a place like BYU is the expectations are so high. It’s a fantastic thing. It drives the culture and it’s one of the things that makes that program and that place exceptional. At U.Va., when there had been such a disconnect from success for such a long period of time, the fans and folks were so appreciative to see progress being made. The primary difference was existing expectations. I would say we’re currently exceeding all expectations that were placed on the program in relation to the timeframe that was given or even expected.

DN: In Provo, you were a very public figure and people would talk to you about BYU football everywhere, from church meetings to the grocery store. What’s that like in Charlottesville? What’s it like to have a job that’s not so closely connected to your faith?

BM: I struggle to even find a way to describe what that’s like as the head coach at BYU. It’s an amazing opportunity to be a 24/7 ambassador and representative of our faith through the game of football. I embraced that to the very best that I could. I also did it imperfectly. At U.Va., I live in relative obscurity, meaning in relation to the BYU experience. On occasion, Holly and I can go out to dinner and only be kind of recognized rather than the meal is pretty much impossible to eat because of the constant interruptions and people and exchanges. That’s building over time here. But the relative obscurity we have as a Division I football coach at a Power Five level has really been refreshing in terms of some of the privacy we’ve had and been able to enjoy in relation to what was required at BYU, which is great and is expected and is required. But for someone that is introverted like myself, that was a challenge.

DN: Before you left BYU, you had other offers and opportunities to leave to take a head coaching job at a Power Five program. What made Virginia different?

BM: It became really clear. Then simply the reality that there’s a time and a season for growth and impact for all of us. What I want for Brigham Young University, and will always want, is the best of everything. I want BYU to be completely aligned with our faith and every program to be run exactly like that and for them to have the chance to share that through every activity to the world. I tried as hard as I could to do that from the time I was there. But there became a yearning over the last year in concert with the promptings to make an even more significant difference if possible. Holly and I were thinking about when we were the most gratified at BYU. It was when we took over the program and there had been three losing seasons. Not long after, we were having a lot of success on the field. The firesides and the Thursday’s Heroes program were starting to catch hold and make a difference. We realized at that point that we were builders. We started to yearn to build again. By labeling ourselves as builders, not only of young people but of programs, we became captivated about what program in the world of Division I football needed to be built that had something else other than football that they really, really cared about at the very highest level. We wanted to make that kind of difference, or have the chance to make that kind of difference. And the harder the better. We asked for a vote from my kids. It had to be unanimous for us to go. That’s how it happened.

DN: What are the similarities and differences between recruiting players at BYU and Virginia?

BM: The players and what we look for is very, very similar, excluding being members of the LDS faith. So many of our kids are faith-based and really strong in their convictions and beliefs and very, very strong students. It’s amazing that my team is, from a character standpoint, very similar in terms of the quality of people. When you have a high standard metric, whether that be faith or whether that be academics, it’s amazing how that has a predictive quality on character as well. ... The recruiting is actually very similar, a little more expansive here because of not only being tied to being members of our faith, which wasn’t a requirement at BYU but certainly was a key draw. Here, the academic filter is very high and makes the pool smaller than what a lot of Power Five programs would have. But in a way, it increases and ensures the quality of people, which is so much fun to be around.

DN: How would you describe your relationship with your assistant coaches?

BM: My assistant coaches are my dearest friends. They’ve become that through this experience. We are all each other’s support group, in every capacity. Not only personally but professionally. We can’t wait to see each other every single day. A lot of my staff spends time together when work is over. Our kids are all friends. Our families are serving in callings together in our ward. It’s galvanized a group of people and it couldn’t have happened without this distance of a move and the challenges we’ve taken on.

DN: Utah has become a recruiting hotbed for college coaches around the country. Do you spend much effort recruiting the state of Utah?

BM: When I was the coach at BYU, I could sense and see the number of Division I players from Utah seemed to be increasing and the quality of football being played and the quality of coaching was becoming very good. Every year it seemed to increase to where I thought it was exceptional high school football. Especially from the Pac-12, it seemed to be where more and more schools from outside the state were coming in. I saw it more regionally to begin with, and I still see it relatively that way. More kids that want something outside of the Mountain West region or are drawn to something like education at an elite, elite level, there might be something that draws them from that. But there has to be a really strong reason for kids or for my staff; if there is a player from the state of Utah that is interested, usually the first question I ask is, “How come?” Is that reason compelling enough for them to cross the number of states necessary to play here? Sometimes, it is.

DN: In your news conference the day it was announced that you were leaving for Virginia, you said you didn’t want to play BYU, though BYU was on schedule in the future. (The previously scheduled 2019 game was pushed back to 2021, in Provo, and the two teams are also scheduled to play in 2023 in Charlottesville and 2025 in Provo.) Do you still feel that way about playing BYU?

BM: I do. There are a lot of simple reasons. BYU has a very special place in my heart. I’ll always have a hard time not pulling for them because of my faith. It’s a cleaner break and it’s cleaner for me to support, obviously, rather than be a competitor. The next part is, I’ve learned here at U.Va. that there are so many good teams that are really (geographically) close. We’ve traveled to Oregon and we’ve traveled to Boise, and it really made no sense to me. They had scheduled UCLA and USC before as well. I was opposed to that scheduling philosophy and I am now. I inherited that game and that series. I’ve asked for BYU to work and not play the game, but I think they would like to. It really makes very little sense from a football perspective for us. We could easily play anyone that’s one state away and have a very similar strength of schedule than traveling a couple of time zones away and what that looks like on the season. There’s the personal part of wanting to support and always wanting success for BYU and the reality that it’s a long ways away for the kids out here and for our program. Much different than playing in a bowl game.

DN: So we may see you on the sidelines at LaVell Edwards Stadium in 2021?

BM: Yeah, you could. For right now, it’s still on the schedule. I don’t think BYU has any intent to not play the game. I made my hopes clear at the press conference and I’ve maintained that throughout. If so, it would be in a very unique set of circumstances to be back to the place where I once coached.

DN: Do you follow what’s going on with BYU’s football program?

BM: I would love to say that I do, but I don’t. It’s easier for me personally to not. I love and respect the institution as well as any player that chooses to attend and be aligned with the honor code and BYU’s mission. I really support any program that’s run excellently in relation to that at BYU. I don’t watch the games, I don’t follow the ins and outs of strategies or relationships. I really haven’t looked back, to be honest.

DN: Have your paths crossed with your successor, Kalani Sitake? Have you ever talked with him about what it’s like coaching at BYU?

BM: No, we haven’t talked. I came back for LaVell Edwards’ funeral (in December 2016). In that setting, we had a quick conversation since he had been named head coach. It was just for a couple of minutes and there were a lot of people around. That’s the only interaction I’ve had with Kalani since he’s become BYU’s head coach.

DN: You and Kalani are the only people who know what it’s like to be the head coach at BYU as an independent program. How would you describe that job?

BM: There’s all kinds of challenges personally to live up to what we all want to be as people. At BYU, there’s high scrutiny and there’s very high expectations. It’s very, very visible. All those things make it very unique and wonderful and challenging at the same time.

DN: When you were at BYU, you were emphatic that independence isn’t sustainable. Do you still feel that way?

BM: My thoughts on independence haven’t changed. That one particular element makes it very challenging for growth and development for the program, simply by lack of affiliation. I’m not going to impose a ceiling on anyone or on any program. But there is an added level of difficulty just because of lack of being affiliated with a Power Five conference and the perception that comes with that.

DN: Do you see BYU being part of a Power Five conference at some point?

BM: I would hope so. I pushed hard for that when I was the coach. I would still push hard. But I don’t have a say in that. It would always be my hope.

DN: Have you heard from BYU fans since you moved to Virginia?

BM: I do. Frequently. Mostly expressing appreciation and gratitude that maybe they wished they would have shared earlier (laughs). That’s kind of how it works.

DN: When you think back to your time at BYU, what comes to mind?

BM: I am completely grateful. I focus on only the great things about being able to coach or have a job that was completely aligned with my beliefs. I’m completely grateful and thankful. That’s the overwhelming sense that I have and I feel really lucky to have been able to be the coach there.

I hope that what’s expressed is just how grateful I am to have spent time at BYU. It was formative in who I’ve become as a person. It’s been formative to my faith, my family views and my professional competency. Without my time there, the success that’s happening at U.Va. doesn’t happen. Everything that I’ve learned through my experience there has helped me in preparation for what I’ve taken on here, which was even a more difficult challenge.

Mendenhall family from left to right: Bronco, Cutter, Holly, Breaker, Raeder.
Courtesy Mendenhall family

DN: How’s your family — wife Holly and your sons Cutter, Breaker and Raeder — doing?

BM: They couldn’t be better. The niche that we’ve carved out for ourselves, much like clearing property in the olden days, the work that it’s taken to take a forested area and clear it and plant and cultivate and now see the yield that it’s starting to show, in so many ways, that’s what’s happening. It’s been the hardest challenge in my life but also the most gratifying. There hasn’t been one easy day. The chance to make a difference is something that Holly and I really wanted and to have an impact in a positive way on not only a program but a community. It’s been magical. It doesn’t mean it can’t turn and go the other way because it’s still challenging. But to this point, it’s been really a dream come true.

DN: When you became the head coach at BYU 15 years ago, you said you wouldn’t want to be a head coach as long as LaVell Edwards (29 years). How much longer do you see yourself coaching?

BM: It’s a great question. I’m not a lifetime head coach is the best way to say it. I don’t have an interest and I’ve become less enamored with the world of college athletics as it moves to professionalism and commercialization and entertainment. I’m an advocate of amateur sport and the development of young people through the game. I love the scholar-athlete model. I find myself in the minority more and more. I think college athletics is a great way to develop young people. I was at Brigham Young for 11 years. I just finished four at the University of Virginia. It would be hard to imagine another coaching job after this one as a head coach.