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Jeff Benedict: The true story of how BYU came to hire football coach Bronco Mendenhall

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 6:39 p.m. MDT

Book jacket for The SYSTEM: The glory and scandal of big-time college football. Written by byJeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian Copyright  2013 by Jeff Benedict & Associates, LLC, and Lights Out Productions, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. (Courtesy of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.) Book jacket for The SYSTEM: The glory and scandal of big-time college football. Written by byJeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian Copyright 2013 by Jeff Benedict & Associates, LLC, and Lights Out Productions, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. (Courtesy of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.)

Editor's note: First of three book excerpts taken from "THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football," by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Today's installment focuses on the hiring of Bronco Mendenhall as BYU head coach in 2004.

On December 8, 2004, Utah announced Kyle Whittingham as its new head coach. That same day, Bronco Mendenhall trudged into his job interview with Tom Holmoe and a number of other BYU administrators. He went in with a chip on his shoulder.

“I only came to BYU for one reason, and that was to help a friend — Gary Crowton,” Mendenhall said. “And I saw the relationship between him and the athletic department leadership as adversarial. So all of those feelings were pretty raw when I went in. I was defending Gary.”

BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall coaches the defense unit during the teams scrimmage MAR 8th, 2003. Allred/photo (Submission date: 03/08/2003) (Jeffrey D. Allred) BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall coaches the defense unit during the teams scrimmage MAR 8th, 2003. Allred/photo (Submission date: 03/08/2003) (Jeffrey D. Allred)

An introvert by nature, Mendenhall was tight-lipped throughout the interview. It left a poor impression on Holmoe.

“He wouldn’t say anything,” Holmoe said. “He was so loyal to Gary because Gary had hired him. I was trying to draw out of him a vision for the program. I asked what things he would do differently and how he would make it better. He said he didn’t think there was much that could be done to make it better. I was like, you gotta be kidding me.”

By the time the interview ended, Holmoe had decided to pursue other candidates, and Mendenhall didn’t care.

But when BYU players got wind that other candidates were being considered, a bunch of them went to see Holmoe. “About twenty-five guys came into my office to tell me — plead with me — ‘Please let it be Bronco,’” Holmoe said. “They were all defensive players, not one offensive player.”

Bronco Mendenhall is named the new head football coach at BYU. He named former Cougar player Robert Anae as the new Offensive Coordinator. Dec. 13, 2004 Photo by Stuart Johnson (Submission date: 12/13/2004) (Stuart Johnson) Bronco Mendenhall is named the new head football coach at BYU. He named former Cougar player Robert Anae as the new Offensive Coordinator. Dec. 13, 2004 Photo by Stuart Johnson (Submission date: 12/13/2004) (Stuart Johnson)

It was the kind of input Holmoe couldn’t ignore. At the same time, BYU’s president privately reached out to Gary Crowton and asked for his recommendation. He made a case for Mendenhall. “I recommended Bronco because he would be very disciplined in exercising what he felt was right,” Crowton said. “There is no gray with Bronco. It’s black-and-white.”

Under the circumstances, that was music to the ears of the top brass at the university. On December 13, BYU introduced thirty-eight-year-old Mendenhall as its new coach, making him the second-youngest head coach in Division I football.

In his first full day on the job, Mendenhall arrived at his office before 5:00 a.m. No one was around. Mendenhall had tossed and turned all night, unable to stop thinking about the task ahead. He looked around his new office. The walls were bare. The top of his desk had lists of recruits. There was a couch with Nike gear on it. A pile of messages was next to the phone. He started making a to-do list. An hour later he was still writing. There was so much to do he didn’t know where to start. Hire assistant coaches? Meet with the team? Call recruits?

Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall talks to a players as BYU practices Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall talks to a players as BYU practices Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

All of a sudden he felt as if he were in over his head. He knew football. He knew BYU’s strict honor code. But he didn’t know how to meld the two in a way that would return the program to the national prominence it had achieved under LaVell Edwards. Worse, he had no one to turn to for advice.

Desperate, he knelt beside the couch and prayed. “I needed help, and I was seeking guidance,” Mendenhall said.

His quiet prayer eventually transitioned to prolonged, silent meditation. He lost track of time until he was stirred by a knock on the door. He checked his watch; it was nearly 8:00 a.m. He opened the door and discovered LaVell Edwards.

“I had a feeling you’d be here early,” Edwards said in his signature raspy voice. “I just came by to wish you luck.”

Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall watches his team as BYU practices Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall watches his team as BYU practices Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Mendenhall was speechless. He hardly knew Edwards. But he revered him.

“Please come in,” Mendenhall said.

Nursing a bum knee, the seventy-four-year-old legend limped toward a chair and took a seat opposite Mendenhall. Then he just stared at the young coach. Mendenhall met his gaze.

“You’ve got a tough job,” Edwards finally said.

“I just realized that over the past two hours.”

Edwards grinned. He knew Mendenhall hadn’t even begun to realize how tough it would be. “You’ve got one of the hardest jobs in the country,” Edwards continued.

BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall coaches the defense unit during the teams scrimmage MAR 8th, 2003. Allred/photo (Submission date: 03/08/2003) (Jeffrey D. Allred) BYU defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall coaches the defense unit during the teams scrimmage MAR 8th, 2003. Allred/photo (Submission date: 03/08/2003) (Jeffrey D. Allred)

Sober, Mendenhall nodded.

“But you’ve also got one of the best jobs in the country,” Edwards said. For the next thirty minutes, Mendenhall listened as Edwards shared ideas. When it was clear that the visit was coming to an end, Mendenhall asked if he had any parting advice.

“Don’t try to be me,” Edwards said. “Don’t try to be anybody else, either. The best way to success is be yourself. Just be yourself and set your program in that direction.”

Then he disappeared.

Excerpted from THE SYSTEM: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Benedict & Associates, LLC, and Lights Out Productions, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. THE SYSTEM is available online at Amazon.com.

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