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Bronco Mendenhall and Northwestern: This one seems like a good fit, for both

Chris Graham
Bronco Mendenhall
Bronco Mendenhall. Photo: UVA Athletics

Former UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall is getting some interesting love from the hot taek chattering class in connection with the open job at Northwestern.

Mendenhall, who was 36-38 in six seasons at Virginia, leading the program to its first-ever ACC Championship Game and Orange Bowl in 2019 in Year 4 of his rebuild from the awful Mike London era, would seem to check the important boxes for Northwestern, which is reeling from the fallout of the hazing scandal that took down favorite son Pat Fitzgerald earlier this week.

Virginia, like Northwestern, is not an easy place to be a football coach, with the stringent admissions requirements limiting the pool of potential recruits that you need to be able to compete week in, week out in a Power 5 conference.

There’s a short list of coaches with the kind of experience that Mendenhall can bring to bear – think: David Shaw, late of Stanford, current Duke coach Mike Elko, maybe also former Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and current Army coach Jeff Monken, though those latter two don’t have the Power 5 experience of the others.

Mendenhall would be an interesting possible fit at Northwestern. Covering him for six years, he came across to me at the first meeting, and this impression would be reinforced over time, as a guy who could be a Fortune 500 CEO if he wasn’t a football coach.

His approach to football is clinical, with a series of benchmarks at the micro level for players to achieve to even be able to practice, then earn a number, and at the macro level, his approach to metrics is new age in a sport that can still be beset by traditional thinking.

I don’t claim to know a lot about the culture at Northwestern, but the school comes across to me as wanting to be seen by the outside world as being business-like in its approach to things.

There’s going to be a need there to clean house and start over, and this is where Mendenhall would have a leg up on the other guys who also seem like they’d be good fits.

Mendenhall didn’t inherit a program beset by a hazing scandal when he took over at Virginia in December 2015, but you can’t imagine a cupboard more bare than what had been left him by Mike London, who only had one winning season in his six years in Charlottesville.

Mendenhall’s first team was blown out in its season opener by Richmond, an FCS program, and finished 2-10, but by Year 2, he had Virginia in a bowl game, on its way up toward an 8-5 season in 2018 and the success in 2019 that included a division championship and the New Year’s Six appearance.

His departure from Virginia was the function of a clash of wills with an AD, Carla Williams, who had inherited Mendenhall from her predecessor, Craig Littlepage, and seemed to want to put her stamp on the football program with a directive to Mendenhall that he replace his defensive coordinator, which he resisted, ultimately, by stepping down.

Northwestern, like Virginia, is a tough job – an academics-first school trying to compete in a Power 5 league.

A year away from the business has Mendenhall apparently itching to get back to work.

He’d be a great fit at Northwestern.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham, the king of "fringe media," is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].