Dick Harmon: Former BYU players insist that fans don't know the real Bronco Mendenhall

Published: Monday, Dec. 10 2012 7:20 p.m. MST

Fans criticize BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall for often being impersonal, unapproachable and distant.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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PROVO — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is an interesting guy.

Driven, intense, distant, competitive and quiet, he's a head football coach at a Divison I university. He's also his own defensive coordinator, overseeing a defense ranked No. 3 in the country this fall. At a religious school, he's a man challenged to win and to do so by meeting a public relations standard. And his school's clamoring fans demand he do it with substance — and style.

On Dec. 20, Mendenhall will lead BYU to another bowl game. It's a feat Mendenhall has accomplished eight times — every season since he took over a program that had languished in misery for three consecutive years before he was in charge.

But there are some discouraged fans who won't follow when BYU takes the field next week against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl at San Diego.

There's a disconnect going on, according to Jadon and Aaron Wagner and Jordan Pendleton, all former Cougar defensive starters, who have laughed, groaned, celebrated and shed tears at Mendenhall's side.

Some BYU fans think Mendenhall is too impersonal, unapproachable and introverted. They are mostly right, say the players. He is distant and keeps people from getting too cozy with his personal space. He even admits as much in his book, "Running Against the Wind."

Some think Mendenhall is silly for publicly — and repeatedly — saying football is the fifth priority in his pecking order and that he doesn't place winning at the top. Some are critical of his Friday night firesides that draw packed audiences around the country.

Dumb conclusions, say the players. Some folks, according to these players, don't have a clue.

Aside from some disappointed donors, the players say those who are in charge of BYU love Mendenhall and his program.

Some think Mendenhall is too sold on senior quarterback Riley Nelson because he's been inflexible in removing him from the field — even when he was badly injured in losses to Boise State, Utah and San Jose State. That particular perception indicates a disconnect and failure to read the tea leaves, say the players.

First things first.

"Yes, Coach can be a tough guy to approach. He is guarded. He admits this as a weakness of his," said Pendleton. "However, when you are close to him, there is no one that cares about you more than coach Mendenhall."

Winning games isn't a priority?

"That's completely untrue. Nobody wants to win more than Bronco Mendenhall. He absolutely puts that as a priority," said Jadon Wagner.

"Fans have no idea what it's like to play for him," said Pendleton. "He's intense. He's engaged. And he is the most competitive guy I know. I remember being scared to go to practice. I'd be scared because of what he'd have the team do — like pursuit drills and demanding that everything be done right."

Aaron Wagner says Mendenhall has mellowed since he's been BYU's head coach. He was even scarier when he first arrived as a defensive coordinator.

"We had guys quit when he became head coach because they were unwilling to do what he asked of them," Aaron Wagner said. He wants to win."

This disconnect, say the players, is when Mendenhall says football isn't the No. 1 priority. He's placing an importance on life issues that have to be at the top of the list at BYU.

"Football players, like regular BYU students, are getting in trouble all the time," said Pendleton. "They have their struggles. Bronco is simply setting the tone for what is expected — that winning won't come at all costs.

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