“Bronco’s office is under renovation,” I’m told as I walk into UVA head football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s temporary office in July. “They’re adding bookshelves.”
Mendenhall sits at the end of a long table in a conference room, surrounded by pieces of paper. He looks every bit the part of a head coach in a Virginia shirt, Virginia athletic shorts and a Virginia visor. Mumford & Sons plays softly in the background.
As I approach, he gives me a friendly smile, but his tired expression and sun-beaten face are evidence of how hard he and his team have been working this summer.
What’s not so obvious about Mendenhall, 50, tall and broad-shouldered, is that he approaches the game with a unique coaching philosophy.
Those new bookshelves in his office aren’t for New York Times’ bestselling novels—they’re for his own personal research. Calling himself a “lifelong learner,” Mendenhall turns to books to guide him toward successful practices and methods, rather than relying solely on his own judgment.
Among his favorites are four “foundational books” that he bases his program on: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Legacy by James Kerr and Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden. And Mendenhall himself is the subject of a book—Running Into the Wind, by Alyson Von Feldt and Paul Gustavson, which discusses the philosophy he developed as head football coach at Brigham Young University for 11 years.
“Everything we do is very well-researched,” Mendenhall says as he discusses the practices he has implemented at UVA since he was hired in December at a salary of $3.25 million for year one, to replace Mike London (London received $2.1 million in his first year), according to Streaking the Lawn. “What we do is often cerebral in nature, but it is always very well thought-out and very well researched. For example, there is nothing that our players are given. They have to earn everything, from their locker, to their V-sabre, to possibly their jersey number.”
While the methodology behind Mendenhall’s “earned, not given” policy was researched, he admits the decision to implement it was an impulse.
“This was all formed when I was standing in front of the team for the very first time,” Mendenhall says, explaining that the team lacked certain “foundational elements” necessary to “build a consistently strong program over time.”
A week before the Cavaliers face-off against the Richmond Spiders September 3, the whole team has earned the right to wear small V-sabres on their workout shirts. A total of 72 players will dress for UVA’s home-opener.
Mendenhall’s emphasis on proven coaching methods has been a staple in his career, evident since he began his tenure at BYU in 2005.
Then-quarterback John Beck, who played at BYU from 2003-2006 and in the NFL from 2007-2012, describes the young coach as “devoted and visionary,” constantly reading and studying.
“When Bronco took over as the head coach there, he was taking over a program that needed to be rebuilt. He was always trying to find the best way, the most efficient way to do things,” Beck says.
During Mendenhall’s tenure, BYU did not have a single losing season. Barring his first season, in which the team ended with a 6-6 record, the Cougars posted 10 straight winning seasons and received 11 bowl invitations.
The ’04 Cougars and UVA’s current team look similar on paper. In ’03 and ’04, the Cougars recorded a 4-8 and a 5-6 season respectively, while UVA’s last two seasons left them 5-7 and 4-8.
In fact, in London’s six years at UVA, the Hoos had only one winning season, which came in 2011, during London’s second year with the Cavaliers. But after four subsequent losing seasons, calls for London’s resignation began to reverberate within the fan base, and they were answered at the end of the 2015 season when UVA lost to in-state rival Virginia Tech for the 12th consecutive year.
Mike London’s last season as head coach at the University of Virginia
Overall record: 4-8
- Conference record: (ACC): 3-5
- Points per game: 25.8 (opponents, 32.2)
- Points off turnovers: 61 (opp., 81)
- Average yards per rush: 4.1 (opp., 4.5)
- Rushing touchdowns: 13 (opp., 15)
- Average yards per pass: 6.9 (opp., 8.2)
- Passing touchdowns: 21 (opp., 26)
- Average yards per game: 383
- Average yards lost to penalties per game: 63.8 (opp., 54.5)
- Percent of third down conversions: 43 percent (opp., 37 percent)
Bronco Mendenhall’s last season as head coach at Brigham Young University
Overall record: 9-4
- Points per game: 33.7 (opponents, 22.8)
- Points off turnovers: 79 (opp., 83)
- Average yards per rush: 4 (opp., 3.7)
- Average yards per pass: 7.6 (opp., 6.4)
- Average yards per game: 424.8 (opp., 345.7)
- Average yards lost to penalties per game: 57.7 (opp., 58.7)
- Rushing touchdowns: 28 (opp., 22)
- Passing touchdowns: 26 (opp., 12)
- Percent of third down conversions: 40 percent (opp., 38 percent)
Points per game
Mendenhall’s offense last season averaged eight more points per game than London’s did during his last season with the Cavaliers. The Cougars also allowed 10 fewer points per game from their opponents. More points per game plus fewer points scored by opponents equals more “W’s.”
Average yards per game
Mendenhall’s Cougars averaged almost 42 more yards per game than London’s Cavaliers, and they held their opponents to 66 fewer yards per game than Virginia. More yards per game plus fewer yards for your opponent equals more trips to the red zone.
The ‘X’ factor
A smile flits across Mendenhall’s face when I ask the questions he must have known were coming: Why leave BYU, where he had built such a successful program? Why come to UVA?
A search firm had contacted him last summer to gauge his interest in the head coaching position at UVA should it become open—not an unusual occurrence for a winning coach—but for Mendenhall, it wasn’t about the numbers. It didn’t come down to how successful BYU was or how unsuccessful UVA had been. For him, there had to be the “X” factor.
“There would have to be something more than just the game to get me to a different school and by that I mean a culture or an academic standard,” Mendenhall says. “I love to build and I love to do hard things—and so if there was a place that had an amazing academic environment and an amazing conference, then possibly I would leave.”
Mendenhall’s wife, Holly, who describes the BYU players as “family,” lists his love of a challenge as one of his top reasons for coming to UVA.
“Bronco’s really excited to be here,” she says. “I think he’s having a blast. He loves to fix things…” Holly says that fixer attitude carries over to broken items in their home.
The Mendenhalls aren’t what you’d consider a typical football family. When UVA’s new coach is at home, he generally doesn’t watch football on TV. It’s Holly who flips on the Thursday night game. And of their three sons, only one has pursued football so far, as Mendenhall says he “wants the motivation to be from them, not me.”
Breaker Mendenhall, 14, whose first season of football was last year, also plays baseball and basketball and hopes to pursue horse roping. Cutter, 16, doesn’t play team sports and was recently cast as the lead in his school’s production of Grease, while the youngest brother, Raeder, 13, has taken up tennis after watching the UVA men’s tennis team.
THE STORY BEHIND THOSE NAMES
Marc “Bronco” Clay Mendenhall isn’t the only family member with an unusual name.
Cutter Bronco Mendenhall
“If you ride a cutting horse you’re called a ‘cutter,’ so that is my oldest son’s name. If you go back to cowboy days, a cowboy on a cutting horse would cut through the herd and cut one cow out of the herd. That was usually to buy time for another cowboy to come up to grab the cow to brand it.”
Breaker Blue Mendenhall
“There’s a famous horse breaker named Breaker Morant, so he’s sort of named after him. Then for his middle name, I love the ocean and I love surfing, so I chose blue.”
Raeder Steel Mendenhall
“My [late] father-in-law’s name was Rae. We honored his name with ‘Rae’ and then we added the ‘der’ to make it ‘Raeder.’ We chose his middle name as Steel because we liked the idea that it was sort of steadfast and immovable.”
The move to Charlottesville required the family to sell their 12 cows and chickens, pack up their lives and move their five horses and four dogs 2,081 miles from Provo, Utah, and live in a hotel for three months and in an RV on their new property for four months while their home was being renovated. But Mendenhall says each of their three sons has individually thanked him for moving to Charlottesville and that the family is excited to be a part of the community—“and not just on Saturdays.”
“We are just excited for the Eastern experience, not as much sports-wise as history and culture,” Holly says. “We’re excited to have an adventure out here and soak up and experience all that we can.”
Mendenhall was raised in Alpine, Utah, and grew up on a ranch, breaking horses and working with animals throughout his childhood. Everything from his sons’ names to his lifelong role models is based on his experiences growing up.
“I never aspired to be a coach,” Mendenhall says, explaining he had to change his career plans when he realized he was not good enough for the NFL (he was a two-year starter at safety at Oregon State University). “I went to the two things I loved, and one was breaking horses and the other was football.”
Mendenhall cites his father Paul, whom he worked side by side with at the ranch, as a major influence.
“I never saw or heard him act in a way that was anything but exemplary,” Mendenhall says. “There was always an answer to a question, there was always time for me. Most importantly I could see what a man of substance was through his actions. He, more than anyone, has shaped my life.”
Much in the same way that Paul Mendenhall influenced his son, Bronco Mendenhall has shaped the lives of the student-athletes he has coached.
Beyond X’s and O’s
“When I see Bronco, I see him with a baseball cap, yelling at players to get their mind right,” John Beck says, recalling a key phrase from Mendenhall’s days at BYU. “He would always tell everybody to ‘have your mind right.’”
What Mendenhall meant, according to Beck, was to make sure players were mentally prepared for every practice or football game before stepping on the field. In a team sport like football, “you have to have everybody with their mind right.”
Andrew Rich, a defensive back who played for BYU from 2008-2010, similarly admired Mendenhall’s ability to give players the mental motivation necessary to succeed, even if they “maybe physically didn’t belong in the game.”
“His ability to get the most out of every player is kind of uncanny. He has the ability to draw everything from you if you’re willing to do it,” Rich says.
Although Mendenhall exerts a certain authority over his players, Rich stresses that his approach differed from previous coaches he’d had.
“He’s naturally an introvert so he’s just typically a little more quiet and a little more reserved type of coach,” Rich says. “I’ve had a lot of coaches who are really outspoken and loud and always yelling just to yell, and he’s definitely not that way.
For Rich, who experienced a difficult period at BYU, Mendenhall was more than just a football coach—he was a mentor.
“One day he drove an hour and 15 minutes to my house just to see how I was doing,” Rich says. “And it wasn’t because he was interested in me because I was this great football player because at that time I hadn’t had much success. It wasn’t always about X’s and O’s with him.”
Along with the individual care Mendenhall gave his players, Beck felt that he always knew what the team needed as a whole, evident even from one of his first acts as head coach at BYU.
“There was a moment where he took the entire football team up a canyon and we wrote down all of the frustrating things about why the team hadn’t been winning…and then he took a football helmet with the old logo on it and we chucked the helmet and all the papers into a fire,” Beck says. “And he said, ‘That’s done and we will never ever be that again.’”
A similar philosophy has manifested itself in Charlottesville, where Mendenhall says he’s “anxious” for the team to start over—not just on the field, but with their community of fans as well.
“I think our fans appreciate excellence,” Mendenhall says, referencing the UVA men’s basketball team fans. “Our fans are knowledgeable…and that, to me, is a great place to start from.”
Something else Mendenhall hopes Cavalier football fans will appreciate is a game day that looks a little different than in seasons past. In addition to revamped uniforms, spectators will notice the return of diamond overlays in the end zones and free programs. Missing this year, though, will be the Wahoo Walk, which allowed fans to cheer on the team as it made its way from Engineer’s Way to Scott Stadium two hours before kickoff, and the animated pregame video featuring Cav Man.
No more sitting home in December
Of course, it will take more than just a supportive fan base to jump-start UVA’s football season, and Mendenhall has not shied away from enforcing discipline on his team.
“I love fanatical effort, but first and foremost I love very high standards and very clear expectations,” Mendenhall says. “Rarely do I raise my voice, but what I say—we are gonna do. And we’re gonna do it exactly as I said. There are only two ways to do things in my book: We do it the exact right way or we do it again.”
Although Mendenhall’s policy may seem uncompromising, wide receiver coach Marques Hagans, who has been a part of UVA’s coaching staff since 2011, says the team is more than up to the challenge.
“The players have really bought in to what’s being asked of them and one of Coach’s biggest things is the power of choice. …The guys who are left really want to be here and really want to do everything that’s asked of them,” Hagans says, emphasizing that the players have been responding to challenges as a team and that he has seen an improvement in camaraderie and team chemistry.
Hagans notes especially how hard UVA’s student-athletes have been training leading up to this season, something Mendenhall has stressed since day one. In fact, Mendenhall’s message at his first meeting with the team included little more than “train.”
“I told them to train, and if they weren’t sure what to do, train. And if they had extra time, train. And in between training, train,” Mendenhall says, smiling. “And then I stood at the entrance to the team room and I shook every player’s hand as they left and I just tried to get a feeling for where every player was at.”
After four consecutive losing seasons, Hagans says both the players and the coaching staff are ready to see this team succeed, saying it’s been “tough” to watch UVA football recently. The team recently picked its starting quarterback—junior Kurt Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina University. Senior Matt Johns, last season’s starting quarterback, remains on the team.
“I want this team, these players, to have success and be able to say that they were a turning point in UVA’s history under Coach Mendenhall,” Hagans says. He adds with a sigh: “You get tired of sitting home in December.”
The big question on many fans’ minds is whether UVA will go to its first bowl game in four years—and, better still, whether the Virginia Cavaliers will record a “W” against Virginia Tech.
Thus far, however, the odds are stacked against Mendenhall’s Cavaliers, with the sports media choosing the team to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division via a poll at the season kickoff conference in July. Mendenhall has just one thing to say in response to the team’s last-place ranking: “They couldn’t have written a better script. In my entire life, I have never been picked to finish last, nor have I ever finished last—and as a head coach I’ve never been part of a losing season and I’ve never not gone to postseason play. They’ve provided a great storyline to start a very intriguing plot.”
UVA’s head coach tells us which players we should be watching this season
Junior, free safety
“Quin Blanding is incredibly smart, fast, experienced, tough. Exactly what we want at safety.”
- Solo tackles: 68
- Total tackles: 115
- Tackles for loss: 1 (4 yards)
- Interceptions: 1
- Forced fumbles: 1
- Recovered fumbles: 1
- Pass break-ups: 3
Junior, wide receiver
“Doni Dowling is a fierce competitor, plays with tons of emotion, and when channeled correctly he can be a huge big-play asset.”
- Solo tackles: 3
Junior, inside linebacker
“Micah Kiser is absolutely reliable in every way and is the heart of our defense.”
- Solo tackles: 64
- Total tackles: 117
- Tackles for loss: 13 (58 yards)
- Sacks: 7.5 (48 yards)
- Forced fumbles: 3
- Fumbles recovered: 2
- Pass break-ups: 2
“Amazing leader and an excellent football player that has been leading from the front in everything we’ve done since the moment I arrived.”
Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell
Senior, running back
Mizzell goes into his senior year as the leading receiver from the 2015 season, tallying 75 receptions and an average of 60 receiving yards per game, despite being a running back. He hasn’t slacked off as a running back, though: He leads the Cavaliers with 163 carries and 723 yards gained. Mizzell can also fill in as a returner, which makes him a player worth watching—he’s a threat in three categories.
“Smoke is a big play threat at any time from multiple positions on the field.”
- Rush attempts: 163
- Yards gained: 723
- Average gain per rush: 4.1
- Average rushing yards per game: 55.9
- Longest rush: 36
- Rushing touchdowns: 4
- Receptions: 75
- Average yards per reception: 9.6
- Average receiving yards per game: 60.1
- Receiving touchdowns: 4
- Kick returns: 7
- Average yards per kick return: 13.7
- Total touchdowns: 8
- Average total yards per game: 124
Senior, offensive tackle
“Eric Smith has a tremendous future. He’s a very good football player with great experience, and he’ll play a pivotal role in defending our quarterback.”
- Solo tackles: 2
Senior, defensive tackle
“Donte Wilkins is where 3-4 defense starts and that’s at the nose tackle.”
- Solo tackles: 6
- Total tackles: 11
- Tackles for loss: 1.5 (2 yards)
- Sacks: 0.5 (1 yard)
Sophomore, running back
Olamide Zaccheaus is another triple-threat player, making his mark in rushing, receiving and returns for the Cavaliers last season. As a freshman, he recorded 33 carries and 275 yards, as well as posted 21 receptions and an average of 18 receiving yards per game. The returner for the Cavaliers also averages 19.3 yards per kick return and 6.8 yards per punt return. Look for him to step up into a larger role this year on many potential fronts.
“Olamide is a dynamic, versatile player—thrives in space.”
- Rush attempts: 33
- Yards gained: 275
- Average gain per rush: 7.9
- Longest rush: 35
- Average rushing yards per game: 21.8
- Rushing touchdowns: 1
- Receptions: 21
- Average yards per reception: 10.3
- Average receiving yards per game: 18
- Receiving touchdowns: 1
- Passing touchdowns: 1
- Kick returns: 28
- Average yards per kick return: 19.3
- Punt returns: 5
- Average yards per punt return: 6.8
- Total touchdowns: 3
- Average total yards per game: 87.8