PROVO — When he was starring at American Fork High, and later, at Snow Junior College in the 1980s, Bronco Mendenhall wanted to play at BYU, just like his father, Paul, and his older brother, Mat.
But the Cougars never offered him a scholarship.
After he finished his junior college career at Snow, Mendenhall chose to sign with Oregon State — simply because BYU was on the schedule.
With the Beavers, Mendenhall was a two-year starter at safety and linebacker. He was a team captain and was voted most inspirational player. The pinnacle of his OSU career came in November, 1986 — 25 years ago next month — when the Beavers knocked off the Cougars, 10-7, in Provo. Mendenhall, who felt he had something to prove, made a handful of tackles that day, wearing his patented neckroll and high tops. Afterwards, he savored the victory.
"I remember laying down, spread-eagle, on the 50-yard line with my eyes closed, kind of soaking in the experience," Mendenhall has said. "I vividly remember walking back to the locker room thinking, 'Now what?' "
He couldn't possibly have known that one day he would be the head coach at BYU.
On Saturday, Mendenhall returns to Reser Stadium when the Cougars face Oregon State, his alma mater. He said this week he has "mixed feelings" about going back to Corvallis.
"It seems like so much time has gone and passed from then until now, it's hard to even go back to that place," Mendenhall said. "But I don't really have much choice now because we're going back to that place. Physically, that's going to take me there mentally a little bit. I'm not quite sure how I feel about that."
Mendenhall didn't just play at Oregon State. He was a graduate assistant there in 1989-90, then returned in 1995 as the defensive line coach. In 1996, he was promoted to defensive coordinator, becoming, at age 29, the youngest defensive coordinator in Pac-10 history. But at the end of the '96 campaign, coach Jerry Pettibone, Mendenhall, and most of the other assistants were fired.
This weekend marks Mendenhall's first time back in Corvallis since he was let go 15 years ago. Pettibone, who lives in Colorado, will be in Corvallis for a reunion, and he will present the game ball prior to kickoff on Saturday.
The man who decided not to retain Mendenhall at OSU is current Beaver coach Mike Riley, who has said that he may have made a mistake not keeping Mendenhall on the staff.
Mendenhall said he and his wife, Holly, have become good friends with Riley and his wife in recent years.
"I'm looking forward to seeing Mike," Mendenhall said.
This won't be the first time Mendenhall has faced his alma mater during his time at BYU. In 2009, the Cougars thumped the Beavers in the Las Vegas Bowl, 44-20, on a windy, chilly night at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Mendenhall hasn't shared many of his memories of his stints at OSU, but this week he recalled a story about losing his car when he was a graduate assistant there.
"I lived in my office because I didn't know if I would be able to get a job so I was saving rent. I had parked the car before the season," he said. "Then when I graduated, I went to go home and couldn't remember where I had parked it. So I reported it stolen. The campus police found it. It was under a bunch of leaves in a parking lot where I had forgotten I had parked it.
"When you're a graduate assistant, you don't have much other to do than break down film and do what the coaches tell you. I don't think I drove it all during the season, but found it eventually. I don't remember whether it started or not. The windshield wipers didn't work. In Oregon, that's problematic."
For a long stretch, Oregon State football was synonymous with futility. From 1971-1998, the Beavers suffered 28 consecutive losing seasons, which is an NCAA record. They were known as "The Bad News Beavs." During Mendenhall's combined six years at OSU, his teams won a grand total of 13 games.
"Everything was difficult. That, in and of itself, established a work ethic and an appreciation for just the nature of how difficult winning football games is," Mendenhall has said.
Riley helped bring Oregon State to national respectability, including six bowl appearances since 2003. The Beavers' only loss in those bowl games came at the hands of BYU.
"It wasn't a time when Oregon State football was very strong when I was there," Mendenhall said. "As a coach, it was a very difficult place to win. Not a lot of success stories — a lot of work and a lot of friendships that I still remember."14 comments on this story
During his seven seasons at BYU, Mendenhall has guided the Cougars to a 60-23 record. Lessons he learned during some trying times in Corvallis remain with him today.
"I learned how important it was to have just a strong work ethic and how difficult it is to win football games," he said. "They should be valued and treasured when you are able to have success."
Cougars on the air
BYU (4-2) at Oregon State (1-4)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MT
Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.
TV: KBYU, Fox College Sports Pacific
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM