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

Published: Monday, Oct. 5 2015 5:16 a.m. MDT

Fans criticize BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall  for often being impersonal, unapproachable and distant.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Fans criticize BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall for often being impersonal, unapproachable and distant. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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.

"Some people say he has other priorities than football, which is true. He has to. But they don't understand. Nobody wants to win more than Bronco. Nobody. But it won't come at the expense of kids on the team doing what they aren't supposed to be doing. Being a good person means more. That's who he is."

"I don't think fans understand that BYU cannot pay coaches enough in this competitive market," said Jadon Wagner. "Coaches are at BYU because they want to be here. Bronco could make a lot more money as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, or head coach elsewhere.

"BYU can't pay the BYU head coach enough to do his job. He is asked to do the impossible: Win games and hold athletes accountable to a very strict BYU Honor Code. It's a near-impossible task and somewhere it has to give. Would you rather it give in the Honor Code or the wins?"

While Jadon agrees Mendenhall can seem distant, his personal experience with the man was anything but that. "We have shared intimate discussions, and during my career there he was one of the first people I'd visit to discuss personal and important issues with. He always was very welcoming and gave caring feedback and insights. He is someone I trust very much."

Pendleton agreed. Mendenhall has given him important counsel over the years and he values those interactions.

What coaches at BYU deal with are things coaches at other places never have to worry about, say the trio. Case in point: If a coach yelled too loud at players in practice and an onlooker heard it, there've been times it's been reported to the administration.

Said Pendleton: "I remember when President (Cecil) Samuelson came and during one of our practices, players were swearing too much. Later, our entire team had a 40-minute meeting where Bronco talked about swearing in practice and how we couldn't do it. Where else in college football would that happen? Other places, that's all coaches and players do all day."

What about the Mendenhall's unwavering belief in Nelson?

"Bronco Mendenhall is not going to throw a guy under the bus — not his player or his staff," said Aaron Wagner. "His statements in support of Nelson are his way of backing his offensive coordinator's decisions. If (offensive coordinator) Brandon Doman chooses to play a guy, Bronco is going to support that. But he will hold him accountable for the results. Nelson is a senior captain and, I guess Doman believes — in an offense with a lot of problems — he is the guy best to play. Mendenhall is backing him."

Jadon agreed. When Jadon played over the talented Kyle Van Noy, it may not have been Mendenhall's wishes — but he was backing position coach Kelly Poppinga, who went with Wagner over Van Noy because he graded the films and saw a disparity play after play, according to Jadon.

"Of course, fans thought Mendenhall was crazy," he said. "In reality, they didn't know what was going on and Mendenhall backed Poppinga. It didn't get as much attention as Riley over James Lark, but it was exactly the same thing."

Conclusion: Yes, there is a disconnect. It's not the fault of fans that they're disappointed in losses and discouraged that Mendenhall doesn't articulate issues the way they want him to. He speaks in absolutes at times, like, he'd "absolutely" go for two (Boise State) again, and "absolutely" go with Riley, given the information he had at the time.

Perhaps Mendenhall could save everyone some disconnect if he'd leave himself some wiggle room, not talk in absolutes, and like other coaches, couch his answers with "outs" that don't put him in corners and pit him against others who disagree.

According to these players, if you listen to some fans, they may think they know. But in reality, they don't have any idea what it is like to be BYU's head coach — especially this one.

EMAIL: dharmon@desnews.com

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