Press Conference: UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall
COACH MENDENHALL: Thank you for being here. An exciting time, an exciting week – a lot has transpired since December 26th when my wife and my kids arrived here in Charlottesville at the Residence Inn.
I feel really fortunate to be here, really lucky to be the coach for this team, anxious to get this started in terms of the season and find the launch point of where our team currently is in all different areas, from the effort component, from the execution component, from the chemistry component, and have a clear indicator, at least versus an opponent, where we’re starting from. I’m looking forward to it.
I’ll take whatever questions anyone has.
Q. More often than not at BYU you had an FCS team on the schedule. Do you like these games? If so, why?
COACH MENDENHALL: It depends. At BYU rarely, if ever, was it the first game. I think especially as the Independence era moved on, it was later in the year. It simply just depends based on where our current team is, what our needs are, which FCS team it might be.
I remember one year playing Northern Iowa – a lot of similarities. They had just finished in the semifinals the year before, were a very strong team and strong program that knew how to win. I thought they were a very good football team, a significant test for us.
Sometimes when you get into conference play, then might have to stop to play an FCS opponent, or any other opponent for that matter, it’s quite different.
We’re really are not acknowledging FBS or FCS. I think this is a football team that is really well coached and they know how to win. That in and of itself is hard to earn, and they have done that.
We think Richmond is a challenging opponent right from the beginning. Certainly a team that we have to take really seriously with the amount of unknowns we currently have.
Q. If you can remember back to your BYU head-coaching debut, are there any lessons that you learned at that point that you continue to impart today?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, I’ll never forget my first game as the head coach. We were playing at home, versus Boston College. I chose to punt on fourth down late in the game rather than go for it and I got booed (laughter). I realized really quickly, ‘Oh, this is what being a head coach is like.’ I’ve never had 65,000 people boo me before. So I realized right then just what was now at stake and what comes with the visibility.
I learned a lot about that in terms of really not trying to please everyone, nor is it possible, nor should it be your intent. So I’ve learned a lot about game management. Still not perfect. I’ve learned a lot about being a head coach. Still not perfect. I’ve learned a lot just about myself. And certainly still not perfect.
Q. Looking at the depth chart here, linebacker, Cory Jones and Chris Peace emerged there, Malcolm Cook. What played out there at that position?
COACH MENDENHALL: There has been a situation with Malcolm Cook that I can’t speak much on, but there’s a medical situation that happened recently. So there will be more details coming through the appropriate channels when that’s available. But that had a lot to do with the way the depth looks there.
- The number selection process continues. How did Donte Wilkins end up with the No. 1? Did he have the first selection?
COACH MENDENHALL: No, he didn’t have the first selection. It was an amazing night. I would say one of the most memorable of my coaching career to this point – really, really special.
The task unit leaders, which our team is divided up into different units, similar to the military, you could call them platoons, in groups of six to 12. The team governance model takes care of each other really.
The task unit leaders were the ones that selected the order in which our team — their teammates were to choose the numbers. I wasn’t the one selecting, nor were any of the coaches. Really this was peer driven. I thought that would have a lot more impact on the players knowing when they were selected by their peers to choose a number. I think it allowed really a lot of transparency as to what their teammates valued. It doesn’t take long before you see a thread of what the team members were selecting on.
The first jersey selection was actually Jordan Ellis, which was a remarkable pick for an amazing young man. The only other one I’ll mention is Donte Wilkins had the second pick, voted on by his peers. The first pick wasn’t number one, the second pick wasn’t number two. It means they got to select the jersey they liked in order. We selected 61 to this point that have qualified.
I don’t ever intend to travel more or dress more than 72. There are 11 jersey spots remaining. Those are announced each Thursday going into or completing a game week. So there will be others to follow. No first-years were allowed to select. That was my call on that first night.
Q. There’s obviously a lot of excitement going into this. A new regime. We’ve heard about all the team buy-in and stuff. How will you try to manage that excitement this week so it doesn’t become too much?
COACH MENDENHALL: Really the best stance is to under-promise and over-deliver. I think the promise comes from people just seeing and believing this will work by past history. I don’t think anyone wonders if we’ll win or not. The biggest question is when and with whom and where are we starting from.
I don’t know any of those answers right now. But I do know the team is working really hard. I do know they want to have success. They’re still learning how.
They’ve had a number of practices now versus an opponent look. That’s in first forum. Today was the first Monday of a game week. Each one of those things is taking extra energy and anxiety as they find out new things. The game will be the same.
I feel a huge responsibility to my team to just simply put them in the best position possible with a game plan they can manage or have their best chance to manage to give them their best chance to start from. That’s my commitment to them. Then we’ll take whatever feedback comes from this game and we’ll apply it and move on.
It will be a step-by-step process. We’re not going to launch right to the top of the ACC or the polls in game one. We’ve hardly practiced how to come out of the tunnel for heaven’s sakes to get onto the field, or where players come off the field for breaks. There are a lot of new things happening here.
Again, I’m comfortable and confident that the preparation we put in so far will emerge at some point but I don’t know when.
Q. Back to your introductory press conference. At some point you talked about the schedule you formed for BYU. As you assess this schedule, what kind of thoughts came to mind? Is this one fair? What were your thoughts?
COACH MENDENHALL: I’m not sure I can even answer until I see us play. I know it’s difficult to win any games as a college football coach. I’ve said that, and maybe the fans at BYU got tired of me saying that. There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for a single game, and winning college football games is hard.
There’s nothing I’m taking for granted, even to the point where just a few days before the first game where now we have jerseys with numbers on them.
So this is a step-by-step process with realistic expectations from my perspective but with optimism that it will absolutely work out in the end. It will be fun to see where we’re starting from. I’m anxious to see that just as I’m sure you are and the players.
There’s a great principle that I talk to my team about. For those that have studied history, there’s a man named James Stockdale, Admiral James Stockdale. He was the highest-ranking officer that was held in the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ which was a difficult place to be. Seven years I believe he was there, tortured frequently. They asked him when he left, ‘What was it, how did you endure, how did you make it out, and what lessons were to be learned?’
He said two things. ‘Number one, I never lost faith that I would make it out. Number two is, I always confronted the brutal facts that the next day was going to be fiercely difficult.’
He talked about those that came and went, or that didn’t make it out. He suggested most of them died of a broken heart. They had some deadline set, by Valentine’s Day they’d be out. It would come and go. Their resolve is just what happened. It wasn’t a physical characteristic – they died of a broken heart.
I’m going to be as realistic with our fans as possible. We have a starting point. I have no worry that this will not work out. I know how hard it’s going to be. Now it’s just a matter of time.
But we will have success here. I’m going to work very hard in facing the brutal facts of where our team currently is, but we need to work on and accelerate that as fast as possible. I wish I could give you a timeframe. This is really just kind of a monumental day of where we’re going to start from. I don’t know what it will look like either.
Q. I know you don’t talk about injuries, so I’ll ask about Myles Robinson as the cornerback. What went into choosing him and what did you like about his camp?
COACH MENDENHALL: Trustworthy and reliable. It just seemed through spring practice, and Myles wasn’t in fierce condition in spring, but he took that feedback to heart, he made significant advancements in that area, which allowed him to make more plays more often and do the right thing at the right time that allowed him to be trusted.
Our depth is more reflective of trust than it is ability. In order to be trusted on our team, players have to try as hard as they can try and know what to do and be capable of making a play within their position. If they’re able to do those three things – that earns them trust. So Myles has, at that position, been the next most trustworthy of players that we were able to evaluate.
Q. Danny Rocco said last week you were on the AFCA board with him. Did you know him before that? How strange is it to have your first meeting with a guy be the guy who you’re coaching against?
COACH MENDENHALL: Yeah, I got to know Danny on the board, but I didn’t know him nor pay as much attention to where he was coaching until I came to the University of Virginia, then realized he was at Richmond, realized that was the opener. Possibly for both of us we both started paying attention to, ‘Wait a second, that’s our first opponent.’
He was sitting out by the pool at the Fiesta Frolic (Arizona), which is an event for college football coaches, and I saw him. I went over and sat down next to him and talked to him for a minute. I then heard him speak at a function in Richmond.
It’s been fun to learn about his career – then also watch his team play because I think they are well taught. I don’t think they win by accident. I think he’s recruited well. I think he’s coached well. I think his strategies are sound. He has a really good program.
It’s been fun to just put a name with a face and learn the history, then just see some other things that a really good coach is doing.
Q. He knows this stadium?
COACH MENDENHALL: Right, he knows this stadium. Right now he knows it better than I do.
Q. When you were hired, you knew it was roughly nine months before your first game. You also knew you had a million and one things to get done before the opener. Has this time just gone by in a blur because you’ve been in perpetual motion?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s been amazingly busy, but not chaotic. There is a plan. There has been a progressional approach to the plan with a clear sense of identity and vision that we’re working toward.
Each step along the way through spring practice, through the winter conditioning, through the summer and through fall camp, I’ve been able to establish what I think are benchmarks of where I think we might be. None of those really are as accurate as I would like them to be. I would hope by years of experience I would have some idea.
I think the metrics of benchmarks – I’m in the ballpark. But really until you play, there are always surprises. There were surprises in our first scrimmage in fall camp, what it looked like to move our team from the practice field to the stadium and practice there – then to move the practice from the practice field to Lambeth. Each thing is new. I’m determining the amount of slippage each time when we move and how strong the execution holds and what things might affect the team as I get to know them better.
So really it’s time. The next step in our program’s development is to play a football game, and that will give me a great chance to determine, and hopefully every ‘I’ has been dotted and ‘T’ has been crossed in terms of preparation.
I’m sure there will be surprises. Rarely do things go according to script. One of the things we practice is very seldom the team knows what period is coming next because it doesn’t go according to script. I’m hoping they’re resilient and confident when transition and change happens, but we’ll see.
Q. You featured one of the most dynamic offenses in the country over the years. Can you talk about what you like about that style of play and how much you’ve tweaked it in recent years?
COACH MENDENHALL: As a defensive coach, I like offenses that stress the opponent either by tempo of play, by adjustments required, by personnel matchups that are necessary. But if you can do all three of those, those are the most dynamic ones to play against.
If you had a chance, I’m trying to think of the last time that Virginia played Boise State, but that would be a team that the tempo in and of itself is very unique, the type of plays you defend are very dynamic, and the matchups that are orchestrated. They’ve had success.
In terms of a price per victory, they’re number one. When we were at BYU, we were number three in terms of the amount we had to pay for victory in terms of a bargain because they did the most with what they have, and the tempo was very fast, the formational adjustments are very challenging, then the personnel matchups are very difficult. From a defensive perspective, I like that.
So we’ll do as much of those three components as we can possibly tailor to the current people we have and their current capabilities. That’s what I like about it.
Ultimately points win. However you score them is good. This offense has scored enough points to help us win a lot of games. Ultimately that’s how I measure it: does it score enough points to help us win? That answer is yes. The three things I just mentioned are usually the way the points come about.
Q. I think you mentioned early in camp the need to develop physicality. Where does that stand?
COACH MENDENHALL: Work in progress. It’s a very unique challenge right now. The players and the coaches are meeting head on. If you take countering forces of a culture that needs to become more physical and want to be more physical, then with the roster management issue of not much depth, those two are clashing head on, meaning that each impact increases the risk of roster management. Each time you don’t take on one of those physical challenges, the culture probably takes a hit. There’s a foundational piece to this of how fast or is it culture over immediacy or is the immediacy over culture. I’m building this for the long-term.
I’m working to have a fresh, fast football team for the first game, but not at the expense of the culture. So that is the current situation I’m in. There’s not an easy answer to that. That’s where some of the intuition as well as some of the GPS monitoring helps. But we have a ways to go still.
Q. A lot of details came out over the weekend about the jerseys, numbers on the helmets, diamonds in the end zone, the history of this program. Why is that so important to you?
COACH MENDENHALL: This isn’t about me. I’m not going to say I’m one of the few coaches, but what matters to me is amateur sport, student-athletes, and highlighting institutions and having a football program representative of the institution, unique and specific to them.
I’m not anxious to have UVA be BYU or vice versa. I’m actually for UVA to be UVA. I’m still learning. But I had to make some decisions because we’re in the season. I was thinking, ‘What would honor and what is maybe the epitome and what would unite the most people of the multiple eras together to celebrate University of Virginia?’
The diamonds in the end zone to me were captivating, I saw a picture of not an empty seat, UVA beating Florida State. I thought that would be a cool thing as a symbol.
I saw an old helmet in the stadium that had numbers on both sides. It was orange and had numbers on both sides with a single stripe. The idea of, ‘How do I incorporate that, but send a message we intend to take that and add to it, not in place of,’ because every player and coach that’s been here, man, they’ve tried their best.
So where it is now is what I’ve inherited, so I’m hopeful. I’m lucky to be here, lucky to have this opportunity. It’s not only about us, it’s about all that have played here moving forward. Hopefully that’s the way it’s coming across, because that’s the intent.
Q. In regards to Benkert, your starter, as you watched him during camp, how pleased were you in how he was able to handle the philosophies that he learned at his prior school, and the principles that you are preaching here at UVA?
COACH MENDENHALL: Well, I’m not going to call it a seamless transition, but it’s close. I think having played under Coach Ruff, even though he and I are different personalities, he ran a great program and they won a lot of games. Coach Ruff asks a lot of his players.
Kurt came wanting a challenge and he wanted an opportunity, he came wanted to do hard things. Man, when a player comes with that mindset already, really anything we’ve been able to throw at I am him, he just smiled and said, That’s why I’m here. Coach Ruff deserves a lot of credit for the training Kurt received and the training he received and probably for him being at UVA. The staff calls Coach Ruff our most valuable coach because of Kurt.
If you look behind that, it’s because of how he prepared that particular young man and how he prepared his team. There’s quite a bit of the crossover between us in terms of maybe not methodology but intent.
Q. Big year for Dylan Sims this year. He moves into the field goal kicking duties this year. What has impressed you about Dylan?
COACH MENDENHALL: He’s battling. He has a responsibility and opportunity, like many of us do in life, to make the most of. He’s trying as hard as he can to be consistent for his team. That is something that I think is a great lesson for any of us.
I think he’s working hard to live up to expectations and responsibilities. I think he’s sincere and authentic about how he’s going about it. I think he’s doing everything he can to help our team win. That really is, I think, a powerful lesson and meaningful for his future.
I think not only I, but also the players hope he can have the success he’s shooting for.
Q. Follow-up on Benkert. At BYU you had six first-time starters. Sometimes on a week’s notice, sometimes a whole off-season. How do you treat those in terms of game planning? In this situation, what it’s like with Kurt?
COACH MENDENHALL: It’s interesting, while he’ll be a first-time starter, he certainly doesn’t practice or manage practice like he’s a first-time starter. I think that’s, in answer to your question, you have to go off what you see as the indicator. It doesn’t seem like much now. I might be surprised game day, but it doesn’t seem like the game is too fast for him, that the stage is too big for him, or that he doesn’t maintain poise.
It seems like he’s prepared well, is prepared well for the stage he is going to be on. I’m anxious to monitor that and see it. It won’t be hard. But I think the game is manageable for him as a starter without much need to tweak the game plan. Certainly we’ve already made changes for what his strong suits are within the plan. But there really isn’t much that’s going into, ‘Okay, will he be ready?’
We’re just planning on treating him like he’s a starting quarterback and possibly more experience than a first-time starter. It’s more in that direction than this is his first college game.
Q. The position battles you mentioned last week was defensive end where Steven Wright is listed over Eli. What did you like from what you saw from Steven in camp?
COACH MENDENHALL: Steven has become, again, it goes back to trust, and in the right place more frequently more often than what he was in the spring and making more plays within his assignment, within his technique.
It’s interesting because he had a very strong academic semester as well. There’s been not only a production change on the field for him, there’s been a life change. All those things together have allowed him just to have this momentum being generated to where it shows in practice.
It isn’t anything Eli has not done and Eli will play a lot. Steven has had more of a life breakthrough right now than a position breakthrough.
Q. Roughly how many players still are working toward getting a number? Will that number be reduced during the week? Can they still get a number if they don’t have one?
COACH MENDENHALL: They can still get a number if they don’t have one. I’m not a fan of duplicate numbers. I’m a fan of a single number and a player earning that.
We have multiple jerseys left. Rarely will I dress more than 72. There are 11 current spots remaining. The players know that. The coaches know that. The equipment manager knows that.
There’s urgency to every practice. Our first years, it will be interesting to see how many of them are able to step up and earn their way into the depth chart. Usually the way a first-year will be able to earn a jersey will be becoming a starter in some capacity or earning his way into the two-deep. If they come to the stadium with a jersey, that means they’ll travel to the first game. That means that standard is pretty high.
If there’s been a player that might have a discipline issue or somebody that is currently working with me, they’re not allowed to select either until those issues are cleared. I think you’ll see this process go on my guess would be the entire season, but hard to guess how that’s going to play out.
Q. You don’t hear a lot about teams practicing how to come out of the tunnel, a coach going through all the history of the program. It seems like you have your fingers on every bit of everything. Is that normal? Why is it that you’re so particular that way?
COACH MENDENHALL: I’m not sure why I’m so particular. One of my core beliefs, though, is that organizations are perfectly designed for the results they get. If they don’t know how to come out of the tunnel, haven’t practiced it, then it wouldn’t be a masterpiece.
At some point I want this program to be a masterpiece for college football, but more specifically I’d like UVA football to be recognized as that.
I don’t want it to be any other program. I want it to be specific to Charlottesville and specific to UVA that honors what’s specific and great about this place.
I think that’s what is so cool about college football. This isn’t any other place – this is Charlottesville, Virginia. I might have brought unique schemes and strategies and coaches from all over the country, but we’re doing our best to be embedded into and become residents of this community and contribute to this community and honor how lucky we feel to be here.
It’s just authentic. So much in the world right now is what is given to people. I want to acknowledge all the cool things that are already here, and then celebrate that hopefully with a good football team that plays well so everyone can celebrate how nice it is to be in Charlottesville, and oh, yeah, we got great football too. It could be a great gathering place for people to be on a Saturday.
Again, I don’t know where it all will start. We’ll find out and chip away from it there.
Q. In light of what’s happened this weekend, do you have any national anthem policy?
COACH MENDENHALL: I didn’t know about that. Jim (Daves) just gave me a heads up. I don’t have a national anthem policy other than I feel fortunate to live in this country. My simple policy, back to ‘earn not given’ mentality, is I really ask my players to contribute to and do everything they can to make it better. There are plenty of people that find fault with things. That’s part of being a coach. I won’t be always liked. There will be things that will be talked about. But I’m going to try as hard as I can to make it better. That’s all I can ask my players to do, before they protest anything, have they done all they can do to make it better. If they did, then that can be fair.
Q. In your history of the diamonds in the end zone, the quarterback that day was Marques Hagans.
COACH MENDENHALL: Exactly right. That had something to do with it.
Q. Hagans’ era just continues on Saturday where yours gets started. Thinking back to when you rehired him, it wasn’t automatic. What has he done these last eight months that’s been beneficial in making this transition?
COACH MENDENHALL: Marques is a fantastic person. I might have shared this publicly, I might not have. I have some criteria with whom I work with. Number one is I have to like them. I just simply won’t work with people I don’t like. I’m in a lucky spot because I get to choose. What a drag it is to go to work with people you don’t like, so I’m not going to do that. And lucky enough there’s been enough success where I get to choose.
The second criteria is – they have to like each other. That means the people I work with have to like being around each other. Does that make it so much more fun? I love Marques, don’t just like him, and our staff loves him, don’t just like him.
Third criteria is – they have to be really good at what they do, and he is. When you work with people that you love, and they love each other, and they’re good at what they do, it’s fun to come to work every day. Those are the criteria I use. I think that’s why so many families came. It’s why we like work every day.
It does not guarantee immediate success, but it will guarantee long-term success. Plus you’ll see smiling people. I use the same for recruiting. I’m not bringing in a player that I don’t like and that our team doesn’t like. Why would I do that? It’s toxic to the culture and not nearly as much fun. Going back to Coach Hagans, we love him, don’t just like him. Staff loves him, his wife and kids. He’s really good as a receiver coach.