SALT LAKE CITY — Well, this is embarrassing. Bronco Mendenhall, the guy who won games but not hearts at BYU, has Virginia off to a 5-1 start. BYU is 1-6 and reeling.
Talk about salt in the wound.
Suddenly, those eight to nine wins each season look pretty good.
After Saturday’s road win over North Carolina, the Cavaliers danced in the locker room, with assistant Mark Atuaia and Mendenhall leading the celebration. The Cavaliers, 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season a year ago, have produced their best start in a decade, including two ACC wins. They have had just one winning season since 2007 and only nine conference wins in five years.
“Bronco Mendenhall has gone from hush to gush,” a Washington Post headline read. “Bronco Mendenhall has the Virginia Cavaliers contending in the ACC,” read another headline on fansided.com. The ubiquitous Mel Kiper recently called Mendenhall college football’s most underrated coach.
The Cavaliers are nowhere near cracking the national rankings. Their opponents’ combined record is 16-22, and their lone loss was to 3-3 Indiana — but they have had surprising wins over Duke and at Boise State (the latter which managed to beat BYU in Provo). And the win over North Carolina — a dumpster fire this season — ended a seven-game losing streak to the Heels.
Now the Cavaliers are one win from bowl eligibility and Mendenhall is the man of the hour. As you might expect from a Mendenhall team, defense is leading the way, ranking 18th nationally.
Not to rub it in, but 10 of Virginia’s 15 coaches coached previously at BYU, including offensive coordinator Robert Anae, defensive coordinator Nick Howell, quarterback coach Jason Beck, offensive line coach Garett Tujague and running backs coach, Atuaia.
Mendenhall, unappreciated and frustrated, suddenly dumped BYU and took his coaches with him two years ago. Nobody forced him out of Provo, but fans and administrators didn’t give him the love either, even if he did deliver 99 wins and 11 bowl berths in 11 seasons. He was about as much fun as Bill Belichick and his program wasn’t progressing. The Cougars were winning eight or nine games a year as an independent, but nobody was happy about it. It became routine. Mendenhall’s teams won games they were supposed to win and lost games they were supposed to lose.
It was as if Mendenhall were an acrobat who had been doing the same tricks for 11 years and the fans were shrugging, “What else you got?"
He chose to leave, and never truly said why, although there was plenty of speculation. The lack of a conference affiliation and little hope of that changing. The obvious restrictions of recruiting at BYU (and recruiting was never the taciturn Mendenhall’s strength anyway). The many outside duties the job required (firesides, for one). The generous salary Virginia offered. And there was the difficulty of coaching in the shadow of the man whose name was on the stadium — LaVell Edwards.
Maybe Mendenhall said it best (in his usual understated manner): “It was just time.”
If nobody pushed Mendenhall out of Provo, nobody protested when he left, either. It would best be described as restrained joy. It was one of the strangest departures ever. What school holds a press conference for a coach who is leaving for another school? BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told his Virginia counterpart that the Cavs were getting a great guy in Mendenhall who would change his team in a great way. Holmoe even let him coach the Cougars in the Las Vegas Bowl. As noted here at the time, it felt like a mutual breakup, an amicable separation, a let’s-still-be-friends-and-share-the-kids divorce.
It was supposed to be a fresh start for Mendenhall and the Cougars, but so far the divorce hasn’t worked out for both parties. Mendenhall packed up his coaches and moved to Charlottesville and in Season 2 has delivered as advertised. Kalani Sitake moved into Mendenhall’s old office, gathered his own collection of BYU alumni for his staff, but at this point the Mendenhall days are looking better and better.