Changing the world, and recruiting ACC-caliber tailbacks

UVA AthleticsWhat if the issue with Bronco Mendenhall is, he isn’t sure that he wants to coach football anymore?

I wouldn’t fault him if that was the case. There is more to life than football.

We can all agree on that. Right?

That was the point that Mendenhall was making to the UVA Board of Visitors a couple of weeks ago, starting with the story of the epiphany he had while celebrating his first Mountain West championship at BYU.

As he held the trophy above his head, he said, the thought popped into his head: to the effect that, there has to be more to life than this.

Which led him to what sounded from his description like a mini-camp for coaches going through similar existential crises.

Good for him, he learned how to deal with his anxieties in that respect. He does acknowledge that there is more to life than winning football games, maybe more so than most in his position.

He still had success at BYU after his epiphany, posting double-digit wins four more times, but it is worth noting that his last six seasons there went like this: 7-6, 10-3, 8-5, 8-5, 8-5, 9-4.

Had he lost his edge? I remember seeing some BYU fans on message boards after his surprise departure suggesting that, maybe, yeah.

This was in December 2015. Surprise departure is putting it mildly. Mendenhall was on nobody’s short list as a possible replacement for the recently fired Mike London, so when his name was announced on a Friday night, it came out of absolute nowhere.

It was hard to imagine that anyone could have known that Mendenhall, whose father and brother played at BYU, a Mormon coaching at the Notre Dame of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, would even be interested in a change in scenery.

Some armchair psychology here: maybe the work he’d done to get around the feeling that there was more to life than winning football games wasn’t working anymore? Maybe it wasn’t so much the football, but the location?

You can’t be that much different than BYU than UVA is. From conservative Provo, Utah, to The People’s Republic of Charlottesville, from a religious school to a very secular one, we’re talking polar opposites.

Another key difference: at UVA, the football coach is nowhere near being the most important guy in the athletics department, even if he is still the highest paid. The pecking order starts at Tony Bennett, then goes to Brian O’Connor, then the football coach is a distant third.

At BYU, the football coach might as well be the Pope. Truly, as the football coach at BYU, you’re the guy at the head of the most important sport to millions of people around the world.

Whereas at UVA, it’s not hard to imagine Mendenhall shopping at the grocery store without a single person stopping him to ask him about the relative merits of the 3-4 versus the 4-3, how recruiting is going, when we’re finally going to beat Tech.

More armchair psychology: part of me listens to him talking to the BOV, and hears, I’m still not happy.

And this time, it’s not that he’s not happy being the football coach at BYU, where the pressure to win is about as intense as it is anywhere in the country.

UVA has never won a national championship, nor had a Heisman Trophy winner. The fan base doesn’t expect either; just win seven or eight games a year, beat Virginia Tech sometime before the end times, and they’ll put a statue in front of Scott Stadium with your smiling face on it.

You don’t have to go out of your way to recruit the kind of kids who will change the world as the head football coach at UVA: the folks in admissions take care of that part of things for you, as Al Groh can no doubt attest.

I remember thinking while sitting in the audience at Mendenhall’s introductory press conference at JPJ back in 2015 that he didn’t sound so much like a football coach as a business-development or self-help guru who happened to have some interesting ideas about how to get an extra defensive back onto the field in your base defense.

And now I’m wondering if his heart is still in it in terms of the X’s and O’s, or if he’d rather spend his time changing the world without having to try to recruit any more ACC-caliber tailbacks.

I wouldn’t quibble with him if that ended up being the case. Because there is more to life than football, than basketball, than baseball, than whatever.

I’ve always said of Malcolm Brogdon, for instance, that he will do great things with his life, after he’s done playing basketball. Look at the impact Chris Long is having on the world, donating his 2017 salary to education initiatives, and committing himself to a large-scale project to bring well water to communities across Africa.

I’m a sportswriter and broadcaster. My wife is a suicide-prevention advocate who raises money for research and lobbies Congress, the General Assembly and the governor on prevention policy. Who do you think I think has more of an impact on the world? (Answer: not the guy breaking down infield shifts or what the play-caller might be thinking with the upcoming third-and-10.)

I hope I’m hearing it wrong, and Mendenhall isn’t stuck in some sort of existential crisis, like the one he described having early in his BYU tenure.

I’ll just say it here: I hope he gets to hold another trophy over his head, and can enjoy it this time.

Column by Chris Graham

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