Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Bronco Mendenhall was not BYU’s first choice to succeed Gary Crowton. Kyle Whittingham was. But even after Whittingham turned down BYU for the Utah job, Mendenhall wasn’t second in line. BYU explored other options. Mendenhall was essentially a last resort. He knew that going in.
He also knew he was swimming in very deep water when he took over. He had no head coaching experience at the college level. He was the youngest head coach in the country. BYU had just come off three consecutive losing seasons. And the program was reeling in the aftermath of a high-profile gang rape case that embarrassed the university and — to a certain degree — the church.
The dual urgency to win and clean up the team’s image was overwhelming. On day one, Mendenhall arrived at his office before 5 a.m., looked at the empty walls and stack of messages on his desk, and dropped to his knees. He stayed in that position for more than two hours, essentially begging for help. Then there was a knock at the door. It was LaVell Edwards.
I remember the day I called Edwards and asked what prompted him to drive down to campus and show up at Mendenhall’s office that first morning. After all, it’s not like he and Mendenhall were friends. They barely knew each other. “I just had a feeling,” Edwards said.
Stunned, Mendenhall invited Edwards in. The two men sat opposite each other and met each other’s gaze. Initially no words were exchanged. Finally, Edwards broke the silence.
“You’ve got one of the hardest jobs in the country,” Edwards told him.
That wasn’t the reassurance Mendenhall was seeking. “But you’ve also got one of the best jobs in the country,” Edwards added.
Then came the wisdom. “Don’t try to be me,” Edwards told him. “Don’t try to be anybody else, either. The best way to succeed is be yourself. Just be yourself and set your program in that direction.”
Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s the willingness to keep going in the face of fear. Mendenhall was scared when he took over. But he introduced a code of conduct for his team that went further than any Division I program in the nation. In his first year, BYU went 6-6. But in his second and third seasons BYU went 11-2. It didn’t take long to see that Bronco was the right man for the job.
When Armen Keteyian and I set out to write "The System," we had no intention of including Bronco Mendenhall. We were solely interested in Kyle Van Noy. But we quickly discovered that it’s impossible to showcase Van Noy without seeing Mendenhall. Take away Mendenhall, and Kyle never wears the Cougar blue and white. It’s that simple.
So in the fall of 2012, I started interviewing Mendenhall on a regular basis. These sessions felt more like lengthy conversations among friends. There was no drama, no hedging. I was to the point in my questions. He was direct in his answers.
Our interviews really hit stride last year in a hotel room in Atlanta on Oct. 25, the eve of the Georgia Tech game. That night I asked Mendenhall about the gang rape case involving BYU players in the summer of 2004. Mendenhall was the defensive coordinator at the time. He knew the players involved. He coached some of them.
I had spent nearly a year digging into that case, pouring through court files, police records and trial transcripts. I had even obtained the grand jury transcripts. Plus I had interviewed many of the key individuals involved in the incident.
We were both of the same mind — his predecessor Gary Crowton had been unfairly mischaracterized, and that gang rape case played a role in facilitating his dismissal.
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