Back in 2005, on the first day of rookie BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall's spring football practice, Cougar recruiting coordinator Paul Tidwell made a prediction.
Asked how BYU football would fare under the new coach, Tidwell said he didn't know what the record would be that season. "But I know one thing, these players will play hard for him."
Three seasons later, Mendenhall's teams have won 22 of their last 26 after going 6-6 that first year. Mendenhall's 28-10 record as a head coach leads the other rookie coaches of 2005, a class that includes Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis.
Mendenhall officially opens his fourth BYU fall camp on Saturday. Riding a 16-0 conference win streak, it is expected the Cougars will be ranked in the Top 15. If Mendenhall's BYU team finishes with 10 victories, he'll have averaged 9.5 wins in his first four seasons following BYU's worst consecutive losing streak in four decades.
A turnaround? It's a 180-degree twirl on roller skates. On November 17, 2007, Mendenhall led the Cougars to a 35-10 victory at Wyoming to record his 25th career win. With the victory, Mendenhall became the only coach in BYU football history to win 25 games in his first 35 attempts.
What can be expected of Mendenhall in his fourth year at the Cougar reins? Much will be the same. But Mendenhall is a different coach than he was in 2005. He's humbled. He's wiser. And he's concluded his best formula for x's and o's can only come after challenging BYU players to be complete men before touching a football.
In 2005, Mendenhall may be more confident in some aspects of his unique job, yet he says he will yield some control and share more leadership with his staff and his players.
While he won't reveal details, Mendenhall said he will instigate a more broad and sophisticated leadership model on his team, starting with him and his assistants, trickling down to athletes. He says if 75 of his players were trusted to be full-time LDS missionaries for two years, he might as well load them up with more responsibility than before.
How will that translate into wins and losses? One must wait and see, but the past two seasons his business plan produced big dividends.
New Mexico head coach Rocky Long hired Mendenhall in 1998 before Mendenhall left Albuquerque for BYU.
Long understands what makes Mendenhall tick.
"He relates well to his players," said Long. "He knows his x's and o's. There are some great head coaches in this world who aren't very good x and o guys. As a head coach, you don't have to be. But Bronco understands his x's and o's, and he relates very well to his players."
"He's demanding of his players without losing respect," Long said. "There are some coaches who are so demanding of players and do it in such a way that the players don't like them and lose respect for them. Bronco is a demanding guy who doesn't lose the respect of his players."
Mendenhall told reporters last week at the league's media football kickoff he had great confidence in his offense that returns 10 starters. He declared his defense will be similar to the one that ranked 10th nationally in total defense and didn't allow a 100-yard rusher in the regular season.
Mendenhall said BYU's defense was at a stage of plugging in players for the departing seniors and said he didn't expect to see a dropoff this fall. "It's not being boastful or prideful; it's just how I feel about the players I trust will step up," he said.
That proclamation by Mendenhall isn't lost on his players, who believe what he tells them and have from Day 1. In fact, Mendenhall's knack for creating a goal or focus and then delivering it, might be what is propelling the Cougars right now.
He built a system, re-created an identity and then produced a meaningful way to focus on the bigger picture and let football follow.
He's had his doubters, which he likes to point out.
Creating high expectations isn't a burden, Mendenhall said, but an opportunity. He knows he's got a bull's-eye on his back.
BYU fans have incredible expectations. His critics are quick to complain about his use of LDS Church standards and principles so publicly in everything from marketing and recruiting to daily operations.
But after his interview with LDS apostle Henry B. Erying, Mendenhall says he will have it no other way.
Mendenhall's weekly firesides throughout the country have drawn packed audiences. His tent-preacher evangelism has included speeches and musical numbers from current and former players, and his demand for community service by players has logged thousands of volunteer hours.
The firesides have struck a chord with Mendenhall he never expected, in a way he cannot explain in a public forum.
But he feels it has a massive hold on everything he does and has transformed him in a positive way not because of the feedback he receives, but what it has done inside of him.
When BYU hired Mendenhall, they asked him to come up with a theme for his program, telling him if he didn't have one, others would define one for him. "I think they saw a young and naive coach and were trying to help shape the direction of the program," he said.
That inquiry into an identity went on for a few weeks before Mendenhall presented his bosses with a set of principles he called "Tradition, Spirit, Honor."
The response? "They told me that would make me a target. Basically, my point is, when has it not been that when somebody has stood for something boldly that they haven't become a target? From the first day, I've been a target, so this (being picked to win the MWC and possibly make a BCS bowl) isn't something new. It doesn't mean we won't handle it appropriately, nor will I, but it's something I've become accustomed to."
Mendenhall's popularity with the media has transcended his own weekly radio and TV shows. He is the most interviewed coach in Utah, and with the national firesides and a couple of DVDs, his exposure has exploded to coastal proportions. When the Las Vegas Sun's Ryan Green did a Q&A with Mendenhall last week, it was the most-read story on the Sun Web site for two consecutive days. Green's Q&A with hometown UNLV coach Mike Sanford did not make the Top 10.
Mendenhall said he's certain 2008 will be a continuation of his chance to grow and learn. He's set the bar higher for his team than going 11-2, but it's not necessarily measurable on the field.
"I'm humbled every year by this task and have failed many times. But the outside record doesn't show that. But again, I've never viewed the record as being the most important thing. I've viewed football as a vehicle to bring football and our faith together.
"Probably what has been nurtured more than anything else is the spiritual component of the job, and from that, my wife and I together have become closer. I didn't expect I'd enjoy traveling around the U.S. and sharing faith-based messages with youth. What was once viewed as a burden in speaking engagements has really become the reason why I even think BYU has a football program and why BYU's coach should have a role."
Credibility is generated through success, says the coach, "And I think what is happening is credibility through BYU's football success is generating more interest in the more compelling message. That, then, is really what I'm viewing as the most important reason for even doing the job; it is the most gratifying.
"All those things are a continuation this year. I don't know where it goes from here, but it is kind of replacing the football part, knowing that we still have to play well because the interest will be diminished if BYU's football program doesn't perform well, then maybe all the things most dear to us will be mocked and made fun of, which I experienced in that tough stretch we had."
Mendenhall said the only feedback he needs to the approach he's taken to minister a faith-based message beyond x's and o's is internal.
"Without getting too spiritual, that peace you feel when you know you are doing what you are supposed to do is the only feedback I've needed. But what I will acknowledge and am cognizant of is it has also been the most divisive as well. That's where my most fierce critics come from, but that's where the most meaning comes from.
"All I'm trying to do is be obedient to the instruction Elder Eyring gave me when I was hired. The feedback from those who say it's been helpful is rewarding; the personal attacks I've received from critics has been hurtful. But I'm not sure when you make a stand you won't be a target of some sort. I just happen to be at a place that is a faith-based institution, and I'm trying to do my best to live up to it."
Mendenhall believes when he took the BYU job, there were a lot of external things he got credit for as the Cougars started to chisel back a winning tradition. But he believes there were off-the-field actions, rarely reviewed publicly, that proved key in on-field success.
"As my voice has become lowered over time and the movement has become slower the impact has become greater. Rather than the actions on the field being viewed on a superficial level as to why the players are responding, I think the actions behind the scenes are where that respect is coming from."
He calls it maturity.
Of all the things he's been required to do as a head coach, the one that's surprised him the most and he views as a failure is "acknowledging" assistant coaches.
Even after being a longtime assistant coach, when BYU hired him Mendenhall admits his focus was on the players, getting them onboard with his philosophy, and he misplaced how he should lead his paid lieutenants.
This year he hopes to change that. He wants football operations, game preparation and strategy to reach a level that it won't matter if he's present or absent. "Maybe I just took for granted, because they are exceptional men and coaches, that my vision would be their vision and focus on the players. What I underestimated is the need to share that vision and message with assistants and hire, maintain and support that particular group.
"I left that first press conference and my attention was on the players. I've learned along the way, you are only as good as those you surround yourself with. I knew that from a player's perspective, but what I did is underestimate the need that assistants be attended to so what we do is applied and understood, and it takes a lot of energy to do that."
Mendenhall said his staff hasn't required it, but he totally whiffed on getting where it should be.
In 2008, Mendenhall said he'll still call the plays on game day, although he replaced himself with Jaime Hill as the defensive coordinator. But day-to-day, he'll have less to do with football and leave it to Hill and the other staff.
That will lead to other changes.
"I don't have all the answers and welcome input from others." He said the 2005 loss at San Diego State was a turning point in BYU's program because he wasn't prepared to face the fact his players didn't match the game plan. The Aztecs ran four quality receivers at his defense that didn't have four or five great defensive backs. His offense did not take advantage of what it's produced for the NFL, a tight end and running backoriented attack. Same for the defense successful and talented linebackers.
"I hope, now that I have coach Hill, that my position will be expendable. The ideal I'd like to have is to watch the buses leave the football complex for the airport and Seattle and the team go play to the best of their ability, host a fireside appropriately, treat their teammates with class and respect and then come back and with some mentoring, prepare for the next week."
The transfer of leadership, he believes, will then be at more of a "root level."
He says that doesn't mean he won't be front and center, but more responsibility will be shifted to assistants and from them to players."The structure I won't make public," Mendenhall said. "We do have our leadership council, and that won't change, but the implementation will involve more bodies. There are plenty of capable people around in the program. If the church trusts them to go out and teach without memorized things to say, how can I not? My hope is to bring out more from those around us, and that way others will have more say and ownership in what we do."
2005 Division I Coaches Hired
Head Coach, School ... Record
Bronco Mendenhall, BYU ... 28-10
Kyle Whittingham, Utah ... 24-14
Charlie Weis, Notre Dame ... 22-15
Bill Cubit, Western Michigan ... 20-16
Skip Holtz, East Carolina ... 20-17
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State ... 18-19
Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh ... 16-19
Shane Montgomery, Miami (OH) ... 15-21
Mark Snyder, Marshall ... 12-23
Ed Orgeron, Mississippi (Fired on Nov. 24, 2007)
Greg Robinson, Syracuse ... 7-28
Mike Sanford, UNLV ... 6-29Brent Guy, Utah State ... 6-29