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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Saturday afternoon's New Mexico Bowl is a homecoming for BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, who was the defensive coordinator at the University of New Mexico from 1998-2002.

ALBUQUERQUE — Once a Lobo, always a Lobo.

University of New Mexico football fans may not have tons to cheer about with just two wins the past two seasons. But they have a pack mentality and they do not forget one of their own.

Bronco Mendenhall has had an informal but poignant homecoming here where he once worked as New Mexico's defensive coordinator under Rocky Long.

From the team bus driver to the restaurant caterer that delivers post-practice meals to the BYU team, Lobo friends surround the Cougar coach.

BYU plays UTEP Saturday in University Stadium in the New Mexico Bowl, which kicks off the college post season.

Paul Chavez, 28, known as "Scooter" when he walked on as a Lobo linebacker 10 years ago, said Mendenhall impacted his life in a myriad of ways. To this day he said takes Mendenhall's counsel to heart in matters of work, family and personal development.

Chavez had to quit football to raise a son right after Mendenhall left Albuquerque for BYU in 2002. Today he is the parts manager at Thunderbird Harley-Davidson here in town, and he is the father of two sons.

"I remember Bronco sitting on a hill watching us do drills. He came up afterward and complimented me on how hard I worked. His words encouraged me and motivated me. The warrior mentality he always spoke about really struck a cord with me because it provided me something I never had."

Chavez, who grew up without a father figure, said his coaches became the father he never had and Mendenhall easily and seamlessly stepped in and filled that role.

"When he left, it was a downer, tough for us all. I had to quit because it wasn't economically possible to keep playing with a kid on the way. I will always wonder if Bronco had stayed, would I have found a way to keep playing and what would have happened. Walk-ons have to work 10 times harder to make it and at the time, Bronco was my inspiration to do just that."

Chavez said Mendenhall's principled approach to life remains with him. "I remember going out in freezing cold in shorts just to prove to the mind it can be done physically, a matter of mind over weather."

Today Chavez says it has helped him move from the least important employee at the store to being the parts manager.

"With my two sons, I use what he gave me to influence them," he said. "I'll never forget him, and I don't know if he even remembers me, or would know me if we met."

Others, who did not play for Mendenhall, welcome him because he was simply a Lobo.

"We look at this bowl game as a home game for BYU and Lobo fans are going to support Bronco and his football team," said former Lobo safety John Thompson, who played against BYU and Ty Detmer in the late 80s.

"Bronco is part of our family," said Thompson.

"Bronco was well-liked here and Lobo fans and ex-Lobo players have looked forward to him coming back here. He is a man of integrity.

"From out tailgating to cheering in the stands, we are going to support BYU because they represent our conference. Even if they are leaving the conference, they represent us right now," said Thompson, who has conducted Lobo summer football camps alongside Mendenhall when the current Cougar coach came to UNM as a 32-year-old fledgling coach.

"Bronco always got his players prepared and worked them hard," said Jerry Buckner, a bus driver for Herrera Coaches who drives the Lobos. He said he is doing the same this week for the Cougars.

"He had a way of getting to the hearts of his players, finding something that sparked them, got to them, made them better. I've known him since he came here in 1998. He's a good guy; an interesting man, well read; a guy who is seen reading all the time. I drove the second bus, which was the defense and Rocky Long and Bronco were on my bus.

"Bronco studied. That's probably why Bronco and Rocky got along so well, they were always trying to come up with a good scheme to throw at opponents."

Mendenhall was featured in the Albuquerque Journal earlier this week with interviews from UNM staff members including conditioning coach Mark Paulsen, who called BYU's athletic director in 2004 when Gary Crowton was fired. He urged them to look hard at Mendenhall, then BYU's defensive coordinator.

"I told him, 'I'm sure you've done your own research, but I have never been around a coach I have more respect for than Bronco Mendenhall," said Paulsen. "And I have not to this day."

Mendenhall worked as a Lobo football coach from 1998 to 2002. "I've never met anybody like him. I've been around a lot of coaches in 30 years, and he's unique," said Paulsen.

Folks at UNM remember Mendenhall as a gifted, intense coach who was fair to his players and knew how to make them better. He expected perfection and worked extremely hard, setting the example. Mendenhall helped start the Eco Challenge, a triathlon-type event that started in the university pool with Lobo football players who couldn't swim but learned.

It became a grueling test, but players respected Mendenhall because he did the challenge too.

"Since he's been at BYU, all they've done is win," said Chavez. "That shows just how good a coach he is. I wish he'd stayed."

Everyone who knew Bronco knew he'd be moving up and away, said Buckner.

On Saturday, this town gets this former Lobo again, perhaps for the very last time.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com