PROVO — In the six-plus years since her husband took the reins of the BYU football program, Holly Mendenhall admits she's changed.
And she's much more comfortable in her role.
In December 2004, when Bronco Mendenhall was promoted from defensive coordinator on the heels of three consecutive losing seasons, Holly didn't know what to expect from the journey on which her family was about to embark.
"At first, I wanted to try to do everything, and I realized that I couldn't," she told the Deseret News. "Now I feel a lot more seasoned. I'm still amazed at the interest in BYU football and the level of interest in Bronco."
BYU fell to Boston College, 20-3, in Bronco's head coach debut in September 2005, which included his questionable decision to punt late in the game that was met with some boos at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
"After that first game when people booed him, I remember thinking, 'What have we gotten ourselves into? Where do we go from here?' I didn't have a clue."
As a wife, mother and First Lady of Cougar Football, Holly Mendenhall has put her signature on the program and found ways to make an impact on the community over the years in quiet, behind-the-scenes ways.
In 2010, the Mendenhalls started the Fully Invested Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides inspiration, resources and hope to children and families facing significant life challenges.
The Fully Invested Foundation is sponsoring the Cowboy Ball, to be held in a barn in Wallsburg, Utah, on May 21. (Tickets for the fund-raising event are $100 per person and available for purchase at www.broncomendenhall.com/cowboyball.)
Proceeds from the event — which features dinner, dancing, live music, a silent and live auction, and even a mechanical bull — go to the Thursday's Heroes Program. Every Thursday during the season and in spring practices, the football team honors and lends support to an individual or a family coping with major trials.
"I love the Thursday's Heroes program," Holly said. "It's been a real highlight for Bronco as well."
Putting on a Cowboy Ball is something she hopes will become an annual tradition.
"I'm from Montana. Some friends from up there have done a Cowboy Ball. I always said to Bronco when we first got married that I would love to do a Cowboy Ball if we ever get to the point that we started a foundation. We believe it's important to give back. I've been really passionate about this for a long time. I've kind of had to get Bronco to see my vision, but he's latched onto it as well. Football is so time-consuming. He was like, 'When can I do that?' Now that our youngest child is a second-grader, I have time now to devote to something like this. I'm having a great time doing it."
Though she's involved with worthy causes, Holly's top priority remains centered around her three sons — Cutter, age 11; Breaker, 10; and Raeder, 8. In fact, much of the motivation behind reaching out to others is because of her boys.
"We wanted to do it to teach our children about service, about giving back and letting them be involved," she said. "We would like to do things that are age appropriate for them and help them learn about service. That's kind of the big picture. I really don't do a lot because the boys are so busy. Because Bronco is gone so much, if I were gone all the time as well nobody would be here for them. I want them to know I'm here for them always. That's been my approach. Our boys come first. Our time with them is so short, I want to be there for everything."
In addition to her efforts with the foundation, Holly speaks at the team's pregame firesides.
With the demands and time commitments placed on Bronco, the Mendenhalls have found ways to spend time together as a family. They take their sons to many of the road games and the boys also hang out with BYU players.
"The players are great role models for our boys. Our boys each have their favorite players," Holly said. "They know their numbers. They love to go to Bronco's office and see them. A lot of the players have come to their baptisms, and they come over for dinner and take them to the barn to ride. It's a great thing for a little boy."
The Mendenhall sons are playing a variety of sports, with soccer being their favorite, Holly said. None has played tackle football — yet. "I'm holding off on that as long as I possibly can," she said.
Bronco has said publicly on a few occasions that he isn't planning to coach into retirement age, like the legendary LaVell Edwards did. Holly has shared that sentiment, though her view has softened.
"Initially, I thought, 'Are you kidding me? Are we doing this forever?'" she said, recalling when she and Bronco first started attending Nike-sponsored trips with octogenarian coaches Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.
"I know I've looked at Bronco so many times I can't even tell you, and said, 'We are so not going to be doing this when you are their age. Period.' And they're great people.
"But as our children have gotten more interested in athletics and I've learned how it all works, it's a wonderful profession. I mean, there's a lot of junk that goes along with it, but you have to find the good things in it. It's provided a lot of good things for our family. As long as we feel like it's working with us, then I love it. We live in a great place. The thought of moving around the country is appealing to me. But other times, this is a great spot. I think Bronco could do other things. But I don't know what those would be. Right now, he's really happy. So we'll just ride as long as he wants to hang in there."
When Bronco was hired by Gary Crowton as defensive coordinator prior to the 2003 season, Holly didn't think it would be a longtime coaching destination, even though Bronco is an Alpine native.
"I didn't go to school at BYU. For me, it was another job move," she said. "When he was the defensive coordinator, I didn't think we'd be here this long at all. I thought it was just another stop on the road."
Bronco stirred some controversy a few years ago when he talked about football being fifth on his priority list in life — behind faith, family, knowledge, friends. Holly knows that's hard for some fans to understand.
"When he talks about football being fifth, it truly is. He's really passionate about working with these young adults," Holly said.
She added that Bronco is also more comfortable in his role.
"He's in a much better place now. I think it's probably taken him six years to get there. It still has to show on the field, because without wins, it doesn't matter. If you don't win, you're not going to be here. He's learning what fulfills him more as far as his job responsibilities. He's had to figure that out. Initially, I wasn't sure if he was going to make it the next few years. But now, I can totally say that I can see him doing this for a lot longer because he's figured out and molded things in the way that it works for him. He's really happy. He's not happy 100 percent of the time. It's a stressful job. It's hard. Nobody wants to lose. But still, he's at a place where he's the most content that I've seen him with what he's doing. That's after six years. He's worked really, really hard. He's a really intense person. And he has a really good football mind. But he's also an excellent administrator and an excellent leader. It's finding a balance of those two things where he can still grow and develop and help these young men."
When it comes to what happens on the field, Holly gives Bronco plenty of space.
Edwards' wife, Patti, wrote a regular column for the Provo Daily Herald while he was coaching. Once, Patti famously told her husband he should use the tight ends more in the offense.
Does Holly ever offer Bronco advice like that?
"Oh, my word. Are you kidding me? I could not even imagine the look I would get," she replied, laughing. "If I'm bugging Bronco, he'll kind of put his head down and give me this sigh, a release of air that says, 'You're adding to my pile.' I can't even imagine. I do know coaches' wives who say that to their husbands. I definitely know my place in that. No way."
While Holly used to have a casual interest in football, she has come to appreciate it, and even love it.
A couple of years ago, when Halloween fell on a Saturday during a bye week, the Mendenhalls went trick-or-treating. When they returned home, Bronco and the boys gathered on the floor to check out the candy. Holly, meanwhile, turned on the TV to watch football.
"I don't care about the X's and O's of BYU football. I'm not a wife that's over his shoulder saying, 'Do this and do that.' I don't know anything about that. But I've really learned to love the game of football. The reason it's become so much fun is we've got these friends that coach all over the country. And when you have a relationship and friends, you want to see how their team is doing. I love Thursday nights, to see who's playing and I love the weekends. Bronco comes home and he's so done. I just want to turn it on. Then he wants me to turn the volume down. He doesn't want to listen to what anybody says. It's also become fun because our boys are really getting into it. As they're learning, we're learning together. I'm really sad when football is over for the season. But that's not just BYU football."
Whether it's football or a Cowboy Ball, Holly and Bronco are fixed in the saddle, finding ways to enjoy the ride.
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