Bronco Mendenhall: The slow build toward success at UVA, on and off the field
The scale of the challenge was apparent on Day 1.
The players that he’d just inherited from the staff of Mike London famously couldn’t make eye contact with him during his first team meeting.
“They were just in despair,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News, the hometown paper covering BYU Athletics, where Mendenhall had gone 99-43 in 11 seasons before leaving for Virginia in December 2015.
Mendenhall had turned around BYU Football, which had gone through three consecutive losing seasons before he took over in 2005.
After a 6-6 record in that first year, Mendenhall’s next four teams put up double-digit win totals in a 42-9 stretch that reminded fans of the glory years of LaVell Edwards, who posted a 257-101-3 mark in 29 seasons at BYU, with one national title, in 1984.
The old saying in sports is that you don’t want to be the man who has to replace the man.
Mendenhall didn’t have to replace the legend – that task fell to Gary Crowton, whose first team, in 2001, went 12-2, before going 5-7, 4-8 and 5-6 over the next three seasons, before he was let go.
Interesting parallel between his old job and his current one – Edwards retired in 2000, and a contemporary, UVA legend George Welsh, also retired that year, after going 134-86-3 in 19 seasons in Charlottesville.
But where BYU was able to right the ship after Crowton’s tenure ended with a thud, Virginia floundered under Welsh’s successors, Al Groh (59-53 in nine seasons) and Mike London (26-45 in six seasons).
By the time Mendenhall arrived on Grounds in 2015, the program had posted losing records in eight of its past 10 seasons.
It was to a point that it wasn’t just the players who weren’t able to make eye contact.
“At BYU, there had been three losing seasons. At UVA, the significance of losing and lack of recent tradition was much greater. The deficit was much larger,” Mendenhall said.
That became clear to him early on. He had come on board thinking he could get Virginia Football back to being competitive and nationally ranked within a four-year period.
After getting the keys to the program, though, it became readily apparent that “there wasn’t a single area in the program here that was not in a deficit beyond what I had ever imagined. I couldn’t find any single point of the program that was even industry standard for a Power Five program,” Mendenhall said.
The focus shifted internally to just getting things up to what Mendenhall calls “industry standard” – beefing up the strength and conditioning staff, working with Athletics Director Carla Williams on facilities improvements.
In terms of the football, the thrust early on was building culture – setting expectations, both in terms of performance and in the classroom.
Players famously have to earn the right to practice, even the ability to get a jersey number.
“Earned, not given” also applied to what happened on the field in Year 1. Richmond, an in-state FCS opponent, blew out the ‘Hoos in Mendenhall’s UVA opener, setting the tone for what turned into a 2-10 finish in 2016.
His second team earned a Military Bowl invite, but the 49-7 loss to Navy on a bitterly cold afternoon in Annapolis was the final defeat in a four-game season-ending losing streak.
The 2018 season saw Virginia get back into the national rankings briefly, and after a pair of bitter overtime losses, at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, UVA rebounded, in dominating fashion, with a 28-0 whitewash of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, the program’s first bowl win since 2005.
The tailwind from the bowl shutout brought expectations for 2019, with the media at the ACC Kickoff forecasting Virginia as the favorite in the Coastal Division, and after a mid-season skid that saw the Cavaliers lose three of four, they rose to the occasion, winning their final four regular-season games, clinching the Coastal with a 39-30 win over rival Virginia Tech, their first win in the series since 2003.
Losses to Clemson in the ACC title game and Florida in the Orange Bowl did little to dampen the fire of folks inside and outside the program about what has been achieved in four short years under Mendenhall – on and off the field.
“When you put it in context of beating our rival for the first time in many years and winning the Coastal Division championship and then having a great chance to win the Orange Bowl, not just compete in it, from where we started, it’s been very gratifying. Those are the external measures. But internally, seeing who the young people have become, probably exceeds all of those markers when I see just what’s happening. The highest grade point averages in football history here at UVA are happening. The most service hours ever given are happening. The Thursday’s Heroes program is captivating the community as well as the ACC. Gratifying is an understatement,” Mendenhall said.
Story by Chris Graham