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. —LaVell Edwards, fomer BYU head coach
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.
After that interview with Mendenhall, I started talking to Crowton. I found him to be as genuine as Mendenhall. At first he didn’t want to discuss the rape case. That was to be expected. Besides a lengthy interview with the police back in 2004, Crowton had not said boo about the incident. There wasn’t much upside for him to revisit that nightmare.
But some of the best interviews I did for "The System" were with Gary Crowton. He’s a first-class act who made untold personal and family sacrifices in an effort to help BYU’s football program succeed. Outside Crowton’s family, Mendenhall may be the only person who knows just how much Crowton went through in his brief tenure in Provo. They are best friends. Mendenhall cried the day Crowton was forced to resign.
I’m partial to tough guys who have functioning tear ducts. I like introverts, too. Mendenhall’s circle of friends has been pretty small in Provo. When he’s not working he usually retreats to be with his wife and children.
All of those traits appealed to me as a writer. Introverts are fascinating. They have so much to say. It’s just that they rarely say it.
But when it came time to discuss Kyle Van Noy’s troubles with the law during high school, Mendenhall came alive. He’s a football coach and can be pretty monotone — frankly, boring — when doing post-game press conferences. He’s no Mike Leach, who is known for using colorful four-letter words and telling hilarious stories while breaking down game sequences.
On the other hand, when you get Mendenhall going on the concept of redemption, he suddenly turns into Victor Hugo. The coach could write his own version of "Les Miserables." Only the characters in his narrative are real. They are his players. Guys like Van Noy, Spencer Hadley and many others that he has helped on the journey from boys to men.
In an era when college football has become flush with money and the attitude is win at all costs, along comes a guy who puts student-athletes’ long-term health and well-being first. He clearly took LaVell Edwards’ advice. He is his own man.
Jeff Benedict is a best-selling author and columnist for SI.com. He recently wrote "The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football" with Armen Keteyian.