I slowed my stroll just in case I needed to break up an altercation or something, only to hear my coach ask, “Are you the guy that cleans my office?” When the young man affirmed that he was, coach Mendenhall shook his hand and said, “Thank you.” He then continued his walk back to the locker room.
At one time in the not-so-distant past, the word “scandal” carried meaning, especially when used to allege the activity of prestigious academic institutions and their athletic programs. That word piqued interest, turned heads, made ears perk up and sold newspapers. It was uncommon enough that it actually made waves.
In 2013 — a day and age where technology has enabled unprecedented transparency — the word “scandal” has simply become synonymous with big-time athletics, especially football.
To the college football fan, it feels like a different program is implicated each week. It’s to the point that we’ve become desensitized to each new impropriety.
Even the most prestigious academic and athletic institutions are not immune to the trend of corruption: Penn State, Alabama, Miami, USC, Ohio State, Oregon, Texas A&M, Arkansas and many others have all been exposed for illicit behavior.
Whether it’s by turning a blind eye to forbidden transactions, slipping some cash to a needy player or facilitating inappropriate relationships, the motivation to break the rules is easily understood. By not following the rules, programs can more easily attract talent to win football games and thereby make money.
“Whatever it takes to win” is the mantra used to justify infractions. It’s a telling commentary on our society that we value winning a lot more than we value abiding by the rules.
Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s new book “THE SYSTEM” — excerpts of which were published by the Deseret News this week — peels back the layers of colligate athletics to reveal what it is that that makes college football tick. It examines in detail several aspects of college football, including the scandals of the BCS era, but also focuses on encouraging aspects of college football, one of which is the coaching philosophy of Bronco Mendenhall as exemplified by his relationship with current BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Mendenhall is portrayed in stark contrast to his coaching counterparts around the country; he is a unique example of how high moral standards are balanced with football excellence.
While reading Keteyian and Benedict’s work, three attributes stood out to me as characteristics of Mendenhall that separate him from other coaches.
As Benedict’s work points out, Mendenhall should never have become the coach of BYU.
As a friend of recently departed head coach Gary Crowton, Mendenhall couldn’t muster the nerve during his interview with Tom Holmoe to suggest changes that he would make to his friend’s former program. It wasn’t until after a group of players begged Holmoe to hire him that Mendenhall was finally offered the job.
The loyalty that Mendenhall’s players showed in vouching for him has pervaded the culture of BYU football ever since.
In all the interviews I have ever heard Mendenhall do, I have never once heard him throw a player or fellow coach under the bus or blame anyone else other than himself for a poor performance — believe me, there have been plenty of opportunities. To Mendenhall, loyalty to those closest to him is more important than making himself look good.
This was never more evident than during the 2010 season when Mendenhall fired then-defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and took over his position. I don’t think there will ever be a defense that was worked as hard as we were worked after the coaching change was made, but we were desperate for success — and we trusted our coach.
Before our game against San Diego State, Mendenhall gave each member of the team a gray T-shirt with our motto “Band of Brothers” printed on the back, as a tribute to the trust we had in each other as well as our hard work during the week. After starting the season 1-4 and doing everything possible to claw our way out, those shirts meant the world to us, and we wore them with pride under our uniforms as a symbol of unity and brotherhood. The loose-fitting T-shirts — instead of sleek form-fitting gear — made us look like a group of misfits, but we loved how they represented our workmanlike attitude.
Among the favorite moments of my career was when we took the field for the 2010 game against San Diego State. Coach Mendenhall wore his gray T-shirt on the sideline instead of his usual collared shirt. We later found out that by ditching his prearranged sideline attire, he had breached his contract with Nike and lost out on hefty endorsement compensation.
He didn’t care, though. To him, it was more important to show solidarity. It was a seemingly small thing at the time but it had an enormous impact on our season.
In a time when coaches leave to new universities at the drop of a hat, I’m grateful to have been able to associate with a leader more interested in staying true to what he believes than chasing the biggest contract.
Mendenhall’s fierce loyalty to Brigham Young University and the standards of its sponsoring institution has drawn criticism, but to his players, those values are a strong source of motivation. By not backing down from the principles to which he is loyal, Mendenhall has established a culture of unity and brotherhood that is uncommon today in college athletics.
When Kyle Van Noy was arrested for a DUI before graduating high school, coach Mendenhall was sad to inform him that he would have to be released from his commitment and that he would not be able to attend school at BYU. As Keteyian and Benedict point out, the moment the news surfaced of Van Noy's DUI, countless other programs reopened recruitment, trying to lure him away — they knew his chance to play at BYU was over.
Think about what that says about the culture of college football. A high school player’s DUI — and Van Noy’s athletic potential, obviously — triggered interest from teams.
It would have been easy for Mendenhall to make an exception in order to not lose out on a star recruit, but because Mendenhall stayed true to his beliefs, he was able to help Van Noy stay true. Up to this point, I’d say everything has turned out all right.
Mendenhall’s integrity is also manifested in how hard he works. This is a guy whose childhood duty was to break horses on his family’s ranch. Whether he is studying film for an upcoming opponent or learning leadership concepts from organizational behavior books, he is always the first one at the facility and the last to leave.
He teaches the team integrity through his example. He is completely dedicated to doing everything he can to help his players and the program achieve their goals. While other coaches around the country believe that winning football games is the main meaning of success in life, coach Mendenhall believes that football is a vehicle by which successful life habits can be learned.
THE SYSTEM points out that the first thing Mendenhall did after being named head coach was to go to his office and pray for guidance.
Mendenhall believes strongly that BYU’s stringent Honor Code can be used to the program’s advantage and makes no apologies for the way he expects his players to conduct themselves both in public and in private. He constantly preaches to the team that it is impossible for the players to reach their full potential if they are engaging in activities that can damage their spirit.
Mendenhall has been an example to me in this regard on many occasions, but one occasion stands out.
The first example occurred one night after a particularly grueling practice late in the season. I happened to be behind Mendenhall as we walked from the indoor practice facility back to the locker room, and I noticed him approach a random student who was crossing the sidewalk in front of us.
Coach Mendenhall is a pretty introverted guy, so I was very curious to see what the confrontation was going to be about, especially on the heels of a heated practice session. I slowed my stroll just in case I needed to break up an altercation or something, only to hear my coach ask, “Are you the guy that cleans my office?”
When the young man affirmed that he was, coach Mendenhall shook his hand and said, “Thank you.” He then continued his walk back to the locker room.
I then realized that Mendenhall cares a great deal about football, but he cares more about things that are a lot more important, and he lives his life according to what he believes.
A similar example came on the bus ride home after last season’s loss against Utah. The man driving our bus had grown confrontational and hostile when he was asked to drive the bus a few blocks back to the stadium to pick up some members of our team who had been left behind.
After an agonizing loss in a rivalry game, it would’ve been very easy to erupt and take out frustrations on a bus driver that was clearly going out of his way to be antagonistic, but coach Mendenhall patiently asked the driver to please return to the stadium as there was no other bus left to pick the players up. Again the bus driver protested, again coach Mendenhall patiently asked if he would please return to the stadium.
That type of tolerance doesn’t come from someone who is not spiritually balanced, and it’s hard for me to imagine another person — let alone a Division I football coach — who would handle a situation like that.
Bronco Mendenhall is not perfect. He’s a flawed human being, who, I am sure, has much to improve on. (If he doesn’t, then I know his wife for sure has a laundry list for him.) He is, however, a principled leader of young men, dedicated to his beliefs, who works hard to achieve lofty goals.
In the current landscape of college football, that is a breath of fresh air and something to be appreciated.
Brandon Ogletree was a linebacker on the BYU Cougars football team from 2008 to 2012. He now writes thoughtful football conversation on OgletreeFootball.com. This is his first contribution to DeseretNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ogletree44