PROVO — Since becoming BYU's head coach on Dec. 13, 2004, Bronco Mendenhall has experienced a transformation, just like the program he oversees.
Nobody knows that better than his seniors, several of whom have been with Mendenhall from the time he took the reins of the Cougar football program. Many of the seniors who will finish up their collegiate careers on Dec. 22 against Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl (6 p.m., ESPN) have witnessed the changes in Mendenhall first-hand.
Their college football careers have paralleled Mendenhall's head coaching career — they've gone through trials and triumphs, and the coach and the players have grown together.
Defensive lineman Brett Denney remembers being in high school when his older brother, John, played for the Cougars. Mendenhall had just arrived to serve as BYU's new defensive coordinator in the winter of 2003. Brett Denney heard horror stories of 6 a.m. practices outside in the bitter cold.
"Coach Mendenhall was working people to death with all that crazy stuff he was doing," Denney recalled. "My brother Ryan (another former Cougar) said, 'He's going to be great for the program. I'm glad he's not my coach, but he's going to be great for the program.' I came to BYU that fall and I remember coach Mendenhall was very involved, and very intense, in the weight room. A lift with coach Mendenhall hovering over you and a lift without him hovering over you was very different."
Defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen, who redshirted during Mendenhall's first campaign as head coach, said, "even into my freshman year, people were scared to death to have a conversation with him. They were scared to approach him. If you made a joke to him, you just didn't do that."
But, the seniors say, Mendenhall is not that way anymore.
"Now, it's completely different," Jorgensen said. "He's much more approachable. He's the one that comes up to you and makes jokes. He's loosened up, been able to relax a little bit and have fun with us a lot more."
"He's definitely changed as a head coach — changed a lot, actually," said tight end Andrew George, a fifth-year senior who also redshirted in 2005. "He's not as serious off-the-field, especially around us. I've really grown to love him as a coach."
Defensive lineman Russell Tialavea was part of Mendenhall's first class of recruits in 2005. "My personal relationship with him has changed. He's practically like another dad to me," said Tialavea, who is leaving for a mission in two weeks. "He's watched over me, helped me through a lot of different situations. His main purpose is to help us in our spiritual lives. He's excited for me to go on a mission."
Practice sessions are not the same as they used to be, said linebacker Matt Bauman.
"Early on in his career, coach Mendenhall was very intense. He was in-your-face, hard-core. Our practices were so much harder and more physical and guys were getting hurt and beat down. He learned from that, in order to keep guys healthy. He's more mature, understanding the dynamics of a team. Behind the scenes, you can tell how much he loves us and how much he loves the game, how much he loves developing players, and he also loves winning."
Going into the 2005 campaign, Mendenhall inherited a program mired in the throes of three straight losing seasons.
"When he became the head coach, it was a team that was undisciplined, that did its own thing. He came in and ran a tight ship," Jorgensen said. "He had to make sure that the culture of the team changed into a team that did everything right. He made sure we were held accountable for everything and that we were working as hard as possible."
Mendenhall's approach worked. Over the past five years, the Cougars have qualified for five bowl games, claimed two Mountain West Conference championships, strung together four straight seasons with at least 10 victories, and spent considerable time in the top 25 rankings.
For the first few years of his regime, Mendenhall doubled as the defensive coordinator, a role he has since relinquished. This year, he turned the defensive play-calling to defensive coordinator Jaime Hill.
During fall camp this past August, Mendenhall consciously altered his coaching style. After going through a 2008 season that saw his team's high hopes of a Bowl Championship Series berth crash hard following a loss at TCU, resulting in feelings of disappointment and disillusionment in the program, Mendenhall decided to change his approach going into this season. The Cougars have been enjoying the journey rather than fretting about the destination.
"What he's done well," Jorgensen said, "is adjusting to his teams."
"Slowly, during fall camp, coach Mendenhall was joking with us a little more and we were joking with him. It's been good for the team," Denney said. "I think it's because he's let go of all other responsibilities and he's just the head coach now. He doesn't have so much on his plate. It became very difficult toward the end of last year. It became very businesslike. It wasn't fun. It was like punching in at work, then you were out of there. This year, you want to be around here because you enjoy it."
Denney said he appreciates the positive influence Mendenhall has had on him, especially during his senior year.
"It's been interesting to see him transform as a head coach. He can enjoy himself a little more now. He's decided to have more fun and it's definitely shown. It's worn off on us. I've loved it this year. It's been the funnest year I've had playing football. There have been years when we've won the Mountain West Conference and won 11 games. But this year has been a lot more fun. I remember going to the bowl game last year and it was a little disappointing. This year, we're stoked to be going to the Las Vegas Bowl."
Maaco Bowl Las Vegas
BYU (10-2) vs. Oregon State (8-4)
Dec. 22, 6 p.m.
Sam Boyd Stadium
Radio: 102.7 FM, 1160 AMMore inside