Last week, UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall had a surprise for his players: new workout gear, with the V sabre logo.
“It was a big deal,” senior quarterback Matt Johns said, sporting a V sabre workout shirt before the opening practice of fall camp on Friday.
And it was a big deal, because to that point, Virginia players worked out, through the winter months, into spring practice and through the summer, in non-logo attire, the message being: you want to be part of this program, you have to earn it.
“We all went crazy in the meeting room. We burned our old stuff. To wear the navy blue with the V sabre, it really means a lot, and that just goes with the earned, not given, mentality,” said Johns, who is being forced to earn back his starting job after a 4-8 campaign in 2015 that cost Mike London his job.
“No one has been given anything,” Johns said. “That’s why there’s no depth chart, there’s nothing out right now. Because there is a sense of urgency that needed to be built here, and it’s been built. It’s a culture that I think will last a long time. We’ve had to earn everything from our socks to our shoes.”
Mendenhall’s reputation as a winner – he led a BYU program that had registered three straight losing seasons before he arrived to 99 wins in his 11 seasons at the helm – preceded him as he flew across the country to take the job at Virginia.
The coach has the guys in the locker room thinking – knowing – that if they follow his plan, success will follow.
For a program that has had seven losing seasons in the past eight years, “it’s a huge culture change,” senior punter Nicholas Conte said.
“Everybody’s a lot more confident, more aggressive. We come out here, we know what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do it. There’s no questioning whether or not – if Coach asks us to do something, you do it. There’s no resistance, everybody’s together,” Conte said.
Junior wide receiver Doni Dowling admitted that it’s refreshing just not having to answer questions about the head coach’s future.
“It’s good to just have nothing to worry about. Really, I trust in Coach Mendenhall so much that I don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen to him. He knows what he’s doing. Not saying Coach London didn’t, but you know, he’s no longer with us, so … I don’t really want to discuss Coach London,” Dowling said.
The London era, indeed, seems like the distant past, at least to the players who can’t wait to put the stain of losing in the rear view.
“I haven’t been here too long, but when I first got here, people were optimistic, but they were still unsure of themselves,” said senior quarterback Connor Brewer, who transferred to UVA from Arizona last summer. “I think this new staff has really driven into our minds that anything is possible. I mean, we have a lot of talent here, and we just have to give it all we can. No one on our team can say we’re not going to win a championship. We’re out here trying as hard as we can, and there’s definitely big things ahead for us.”
Story by Chris Graham