He’s private, but he opens up with people he trusts. The players see the funny part of his personality. The defensive players always have, and now he’s opened up to the offensive players in that way. —BYU defensive coordinator Nick Howell
PROVO — The difference is night and day.
I’m talking about looking at the atmosphere surrounding Bronco Mendenhall the night of Nov. 17, 2012 in San Jose, Calif., and contrasting it to last Wednesday at BYU’s football media day. Back in November, the Cougars were down 20-7 to San Jose State in the fourth quarter. Mendenhall’s team rallied with a score — a David Foote TD pass — and subsequently recovered an onside kick. But the ESPN2 game ended with the Spartans sacking a once-again injured Riley Nelson as time expired.
That was Nelson’s final start. It was SJSU's stepping stone to a No. 21 final ranking. Last season was a tough one for Mendenhall. He says it was his toughest ever.
That night in California, BYU players, coaches, athletic director and equipment managers shuffled to do their jobs as rain drenched anyone caught in the open air. That was a night some coaches looked and acted like they knew a shake-up was coming. You could feel discouragement and disappointment. It hung in the air like a wet shroud.
Mendenhall's team subsequently beat New Mexico State and then somehow, in miraculous fashion, squeezed out a win over San Diego State in a bowl game to get to eight wins. But after the San Jose State loss, it looked and felt like a manhole cover slammed shut as the team disappeared to float home.
This past week at BYU’s Broadcast Building on the set of BYUtv, athletic director Tom Holmoe rattled off significant announcements for BYU football. It was like he was dishing out candy. One of those, of course, was hailing the renewal of Mendenhall’s contract for three more years.
While Holmoe looked like a host on “The Price is Right,” Mendenhall wasn’t exactly David Letterman. But his performance from the word “go” during his stage portion of a round table to a lights-out final interview with the talking heads on radio row before folks locked the door, he was part Jimmy Fallon, part Conan O’Brien and a little Jay Leno.
He was the new him.
Just minutes into that day, I was sitting in the studio audience listening to Mendenhall and Holmoe. Nearby sat KFAN 1320 radio hosts Kevin Graham and Kyle Gunther. Close by in front of me, Pat Kinahan and David James of 1280 The Zone were cracking up as James wrestled to silence his cellphone. But nothing matched the smiling, relaxed, one-line shooting Bronco. Gunther, a comedian in his own right, starts counting the jokes, “That’s one." "That’s two ” He gets to five, tweeting the Mendenhall milestone in a matter of minutes.
Bronco’s demeanor almost equals Holmoe’s announcements in terms of intrigue. From his stony stoicism has hatched irrepressibility and animation. Mendenhall appears more comfortable in this setting than ever before.
Summer is a time of unbridled optimism in football. Everybody’s winning. Nobody’s losing. Hype runs wild, uncontrolled and uncensored. This is what media days are for.
But the contrast was quite remarkable from November to late June for this organization with a reputation for being friendly but stiff, accessible but guarded, trusting but protective.
Mendenhall told reporters he is excited, energized, anxious and eager to coach the 2013 Cougars; that he’s where he belongs and his work isn’t finished. He said the changes in his staff, the challenge, the change in the college landscape, the schedule and the exposure have brought him satisfaction and peace at his job and the tasks he faces.
Mendenhall says if he “was hit by a bus today,” his defense would carry on without a wrinkle with Nick Howell as coordinator. In spring, since he tossed that title to Howell, he’s been sticking his nose into offensive staff meetings regularly, finding the time like a head coach is wont to do.
Obviously, he’s feeling more like a head coach, embracing the duties as a greeter, backslapper, diplomat, schmoozer and entertainer.
It looks like since he found the way out of San Jose, he's realized more than ever that he’s the face of more than X’s and O’s and mugging it up with reporters and suffering endless repeated questions and dumb inquiries is not to be looked at as a dreaded task but an opportunity that could become a fun art form. Like sculpting clay with a knife or brushing in pastels with primary colors on canvas, dealing with the media is not always looking for the exit and looking at a watch.
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“We see him like this all the time,” said Howell. “We’re all friends. We crack jokes all the time. He’s a fun guy to be around. He’s private, but he opens up with people he trusts. The players see the funny part of his personality. The defensive players always have, and now he’s opened up to the offensive players in that way.
“I think we all mature and we all get better at what we do and get more comfortable. But he’s like that,” said Howell. “He’s just more comfortable in his role as head coach and he, like all of us and all of you, develop as we go.”
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.