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Change or Die: Bronco Mendenhall breathing life back into Virginia football

Somehow members of the media got the idea that new Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall sensed bad vibes from a few players upon their first team meeting on Monday.

What Mendenhall said in his introductory press conference was that the tone of the get-together changed from being “conversational” at the outset to being more focused, in his words, “to train and be ready.”

UVA players made available to the media after the Mendenhall presser got the message – and were left to fret about whether it was them who the new coach had supposedly been talking about.

“I was in the front row. I hope I did not display that bad body language,” said junior quarterback Matt Johns, who threw for 2,810 yards, 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2015.

Seriously, you’re good, Matt. It was the media, being the media, looking for an angle.

Not that Mendenhall, 99-42 in 11 seasons at BYU, isn’t trying to get a read from wherever he can on his new team – and from the media?

“I believe in the language of body language, and I see even in this room those already fiercely committed and can’t wait to come and support and see how this goes, and others are skeptical. I get it. I will outlast you,” he said, to laughter.

The words on the page are more intense read than they were delivered. Mendenhall is not Dabo Swinney, screaming a storm at his punter for an uncomfortable several minutes on national TV.

Nor are you going to see him look dead-eye into a TV camera in his locker room as he fires and brimstones his best version of Win One for the Gipper.

Which isn’t to say that Mendenhall isn’t without gravitas.

“He’s a guy who’s not going to force you to do something, but he’s going to demand a lot of us. Whether we want to do it or not is completely up to us,” said junior strong safety Kelvin Rainey, who was third on the Cavs D in 2015 with 68 tackles.

Rainey was among a chorus of players who called Mendenhall a “great fit” for the UVA program.

“Not just anybody can coach here. He’s a great fit for this program. Just as far as reading up on him, he wins a lot of games, and that’s what we want to do,” said junior tailback Taquan Mizzell, a third-team All-ACC selection who led Virginia in rushing (721 yards) and receiving (75 catches).

Mendenhall wants to take that hunger for success and use it as a force for good.

“I believe I specialize in accountability and discipline and effort,” Mendenhall said. “I’m an effort-based coach. I love more than anything guys that try hard. I relish in that. I celebrate effort. Very few people try as hard as they can at any one moment of their life, and when you do, you recognize it when it happens, and first and foremost, we will develop the will of our student-athletes.

“Skill will come along, the position mastery will come along, the execution will come along, but only after they learn to try hard,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t know how long that will take. Hard to me is as hard as you can go. That might be different from what we currently think is happening.”

Mendenhall said at one point in the presser that his final message to his players was to keep training over their Christmas break. He later amended that, he said, to concede that he expected players to take Christmas Day off.

Sophomore free safety Quin Blanding, a first-team All-ACC selection in 2015, isn’t planning on taking any holidays himself.

“He said, Christmas off, but I don’t think most of us will take Christmas off,” said Blanding, who was second in the ACC in tackles in 2015, with 115.

“We’re here to change it, so if that’s one more thing we’ve got to do, then we’ve got to do it. He said he loves effort, so that’s what we’ve got to give him,” Blanding said.

Effort will be the key at the outset. Not even a full practice session is promised a Mendenhall-coached team.

“I believe in a practice format that you earn your way to the next period,” Mendenhall said. “We might not practice. We might not make it out of period one for a while until that’s done exactly right. But this will be sequential, planned and progressive, not only on a daily basis, but a yearly basis to reach our potential.”

A new day is dawning, to be sure. Johns conceded that the coming weeks and months will be “challenging” in that respect.

“He’s going to bring new workouts and things we haven’t seen before. I think we should just stick to, keep working hard, and he’s going to teach us to work even harder,” Johns said.

Harder, and smarter. Mendenhall comes across as much CEO as football coach, stressing organizational dynamics and pillars of success.

“Just from what I’ve seen already, certainly change has to be made here,” Mendenhall said. “Change is good. In fact there was a great book called Change or Die, and I don’t intend to die. That’ll happen later. In the meantime, change will happen, and it will not only happen in the young people’s lives of our program, but it will happen on the field, and it will happen also within the walls of my organization, and there’s a lot of work to do there, as well.”

That attention to detail is just what the UVA football program needs. Change or Die is more than the title of a business management book to those engaged in a football program that has suffered 10 losses by eight points or less over the past two seasons.

One play here, one play there, and losing seasons turn into winning seasons. It all starts with one.

“Work hard. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to be accountable. That’s what I’m all about. I’m anxious to see what’s next. I’m very excited,” Mizzell said.

“Change is big,” Blanding said. “A lot of people don’t really respect Virginia football. I find that really disrespectful. Having a coach like him come in and change this program around and put us back on the map, that’s what we need.”

“Obviously his background, he’s had a lot of success,” Rainey said. “He’s doing something right, so as a player, as an older guy, I’m glad to see something like this happen. He seems like he knows what he’s talking about, and I’m excited about the future.”

“Obviously in terms of success on the field, we need to win more games,” Johns said. “That’s what he has done. Coach London is a guy of integrity and character that I didn’t think we could top, and I think we did top it in seeing what Coach Mendenhall is going to do here.”

– Story by Chris Graham