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Former Virginia players recall how Bronco Mendenhall turned around football program — from losing seasons to Orange Bowl berth

Last fall, U.Va. accomplished feats that were almost unthinkable back in 2016. The Cavaliers posted a 9-5 record, defeated archrival Virginia Tech for the first time in 15 years and played in the Orange Bowl. 

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall watches warm ups before an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016.
AP

Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series on former BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall.

PROVO — As part of the Herculean task of turning around the University of Virginia football program, new head coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff, who had arrived from BYU, held practices in all different types of weather and held the players accountable.

It was part of a process of players simply earning their numbers and earning the right to play for the Cavaliers, defensive lineman Eli Hanback remembers.

“We didn’t have any gear with our numbers or emblems on them. We had black T-shirts and shorts. It was to break us down and see where our will was,” Hanback said of his redshirt freshman year in 2016. “Those who didn’t want to be part of that culture left. After all of that, he had guys that had been through the furnace and had been through all the hard things that he put us through, which were the hardest things I’d ever gone through in my life physically. We wanted to win and we had to do what we needed to do to win.”

AP

By the time Hanback was a senior, last fall, U.Va. accomplished feats that were almost unthinkable back in 2016.

The Cavaliers have risen from longtime futility, posting a 9-5 record, defeating arch-rival Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003 and playing in the Orange Bowl.

“The Tech victory, I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. It had been a long time since we had won that game so that was a feeling that will seldom be recreated again,” Hanback said. “The opportunity to play in the Orange Bowl was an awesome experience, to play in such a prestigious bowl.”

Former Virginia wide receiver Andre Levrone, who finished his career in 2017 before playing for two seasons in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers, feels deep gratification to see how much progress the program has made.

“If I had to give it one word, I’d say ‘joyous.’ It’s always joyful to see a foundation that you’ve laid grow and grow — things that you weren’t able to accomplish but worked so hard to accomplish but are accomplished by the next generation,” he said. “Coach Mendenhall teaches humility all the time and he teaches intention all the time, regardless of the result to keep the same intention. That is to dominate and to win. Although we fell short time and time again, that losing streak to Virginia Tech and not getting to a bowl game, the intention didn’t change once he got there. To see the program attain tangible success is a beautiful thing to see. Those guys that are still on that team, humility was in that building. Nobody thought they were bigger than the team.”

Levrone was on the sidelines watching when Virginia defeated Virginia Tech in dramatic fashion, 39-30, last November.

In this Oct. 1, 2016, file photo, Duke’s Bryon Fields (14) defends as Virginia’s Andre Levrone (19) catches a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Durham, N.C. Levrone made a big impression on Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall last year in spring practice. This year, the senior wide receiver hopes to carry that over onto the field.
AP

“Whenever I walk back into that locker room at Virginia, all the guys that are older now but were younger when I was there, always show respect and pay homage,” he said. “When Eli Hanback picked up the fumble for the winning score against Tech, he came back to the sideline. (A former teammate) and I were jumping up and down. He hugged us and said, ‘This is for you guys.’ It transcends generations of Virginia football when something like that takes place.”

Levrone is grateful for the influence Mendenhall had on him.

“From an individual coach standpoint, coach Mendenhall has had the greatest impact on my life out of any of the coaches I’ve ever had based on the framework he brought to our program. I came from a high school in Maryland where there was a lot of structure. When I got to U.Va., under the previous coaching staff, there wasn’t the same sense of structure. Once coach Mendenhall came, myself growing up in a military background, it just fit right in place with everything I had been taught. It was a system that allowed me to thrive.”

Recently, former Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert, who now plays for the Atlanta Falcons, tweeted, “If you have a choice to go to UVA and play under @UVACoachBronco & Co., don’t pass that up. Not many places you can get the whole package. Why not give yourself a shot to be in the NFL, have a degree that is unmatched (connections), and set yourself up for life? Worked for me.”

Mendenhall demands that his players give their best effort on and off the field, Hanback said.

“When he says ‘will versus skill,’ he means it. A lot of us accepted the culture change. We bought in and trusted that. You can see that we’ve gotten better every year. He’s a tough coach. He doesn’t want to hear excuses. He wants to see results. He’s one coach that truly cares about his players — and not just football but he cares about us as people and what we bring to the world after football.”

Before Mendenhall arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia had suffered four straight losing seasons. In his first year, the Cavaliers limped to a 2-10 record, then went 6-7 in 2017 and 8-5 in 2018.

Mendenhall never wavered in his expectations, his former players say.

“He instilled a sense of direction. Anyone that plays football at a high level wants to win. But it takes a real leader to show the way of how to win and to win consistently. Coach Mendenhall already had that track record,” Levrone said. “From Day 1, when he got there, he was the most analytical leader I’ve ever been in contact with. Every day, he had some sort of analytical data point that he and the staff had come to that showed how we could be more successful — on first downs or third-quarter production.

“Everything was tangibly presented to us so there could be no mistake in our minds that if we do this, then it will yield this result. I think it took a year for guys to understand that framework. Once it did, we went to a bowl game. And we haven’t looked back since. We’ve had incremental success each year.”

When he first arrived at Virginia, the players didn’t know much about Mendenhall and his staff, most of whom came from BYU and are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I can’t speak for everybody but I was pretty well connected with everybody on our team. There was a little bit of apprehension just because we didn’t know much about BYU other than we had played them a few years earlier and guys go on mission trips and they come back in their mid-20s as freshmen,” Levrone said. “That’s all we knew. I’m all about diversity. It’s helped us all grow as people to have coaches with very similar but a little bit different belief systems. Coach Mendenhall is extremely regimented and extremely structured. That basis has helped a lot of young men grow the last four years that he’s been here.”

“Coach Mendenhall and the other coaches are men of principle. They don’t just say they believe their faith, they walk in their faith. You can see it every day,” Hanback said. “In team meetings, he’d share some scripture that has relevance to us as a team or as a football program. It’s nothing a lot of us haven’t heard before. But everyone knew that faith was very important to them. It was visible and easy to see.”

Mendenhall’s emphasis on discipline, accountability and the importance of life outside of football made an impact on the team,

“Speaking candidly, to have them come to Virginia as a predominantly Mormon culture staff, a lot of us had never really had any intimate relationships with coaches or anybody else that subscribed to the Mormon faith,” Hanback said. “I’m a Christian and I had a really good relationship already with the team chaplain when I was there. I actually had started a Bible study on our team my junior year. My chaplain challenged me and another player to take control of that. It was a very small group.

“As coach Mendenhall continued to preach growth in all aspects of life, a lot of guys bought into that and I was able to reach more guys on the team. I think that structured framework allowed guys to see more things than just football. It’s crazy to me, as a man of faith myself, that my junior year in 2016, wasn’t a successful year. We went 2-10. We had had four consistent goers to Bible study in 2016. During the summer going into the 2017 season, we got nine or 11 consistent guys. By the time the season ended, we had probably 20 guys coming consistently to Bible study.

“After every game, win or lose, we’d meet at the 50-yard line, home or away, and have a team prayer. It was completely player-driven. You could sense that the faith, discipline and intentionality of the way coach Mendenhall lives his life touched others to do the same with their lives.”

Hanback is grateful to Mendenhall for giving him a chance to play at Virginia.

“He gave me a shot after my redshirt freshman year and he stuck with me after that. He’s the one that gave me a chance and believed in me,” he said. “I owe a lot to coach Mendenhall for believing in me. He’s built me into the tough resilient person I am today. I’ll be forever grateful to coach Mendenhall for coming to U.Va. and turning the program around. He means a lot to me and he’ll always have a special place in my heart.”