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Rebuild at UVA: Mendenhall reframing the masterpiece

Bronco Mendenhall concedes that his first season at Virginia didn’t go quite as planned.

“I do have to be brutal and honest from the standpoint of I’m not used to losing more than winning, and that was a reframing, so to speak,” said Mendenhall, whose 2016 Cavs finished 2-10, getting blown out at home in the season opener by in-state FCS foe Richmond, winning just one ACC game.

This, after winning 99 games in 11 years as the head coach at rugged BYU, was eye-opening for Mendenhall, one of the more upbeat people you’ll ever meet.

“That was a unique challenge to have that reframed after 11 years of winning football, to then kind of now experience the other side of that and ask some questions,” Mendenhall told reporters at last week’s ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. “What impact does that really have on me and wrestle with that and then come out the other side to make sure I can do the very best to continue to lead and guide the kids and young men and show an example of what grit and determination and resolve and consistency looks like.

“Wow. For no other reason, I’ve benefitted in that regard in terms of self-discovery.”

See, there’s the effort at finding a silver lining amongst the tropical storm-deep deck of clouds that comes with Mendenhall.

Virginia has won 37 games in the last nine seasons, just one of those, way back in 2011, that ended with a winning record.

Mendenhall knew when he took the job that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix, but still at this time last year he was talking about how the goal was to get the Cavs back into bowl contention, and he felt momentum moving in that direction after a solid spring.

The rebuild is going to be a bigger dig than anticipated, obviously. The writers have UVA finishing seventh, dead last, in the Coastal Division again, and it’s hard to look at even the light schedule facing Mendenhall and seeing more than three or four wins.

You have to wonder if Mendenhall doesn’t sometimes let himself re-think the move east.

“It was an intentional choice on my part in choosing to leave Brigham Young. I was looking for … my passion is building, and my passion is doing hard things and building people, and so invigorating is the word that I use,” Mendenhall said. “Every single day there’s a brand new challenge and something that can be improved. I think there’s nothing that brings me more fulfillment, and so I’m working as hard as I can every single day with players that I love and are starting to grasp what that’s going to take in year two, and that’s fulfilling.”

At this point, heading into year two, Mendenhall isn’t talking time frames for getting things turned around.

It’s about winning the day, really, truly.

“I believe in simple successes, and I think by small and simple things, great things are brought to pass. And so as simple as seeing our team warm up correctly, I would relish that and cherish it. When I see a player finish through a line as hard as he can go, when I see a player – we actually film our sideline, what I call our fourth side of the ball – if I saw our fourth side of the ball in a game react in a manner that looked authentic and genuine and supportive of what was happening for our team, those are all things that I pass on to our team,” Mendenhall said.

“I think great things are built very simply, very methodically and really detail-oriented. And so as it has been yet to show in terms of wins and losses, and I don’t know when that’ll happen, I’m certainly not going to let the small improvements that I see that are leading to that go without acknowledging those.

“I crave those simple successes, as do our players.”

Mendenhall is getting steeped in the unique UVA culture in one key way.

“At the University of Virginia, what I’ve learned through Thomas Jefferson’s approach is it’s not a freshman or a sophomore or a junior or a senior, it’s a first year, second year, third year, fourth year. My entire team were first years last year,” Mendenhall said. “Even Quin (Blanding), who has all kinds of ACC experience and is a very good player, that was his first year in our system. It’s been fun to see confidence, maturity, decision-making, and execution improve with more of a focus actually on playing the game than some of the things that just enable us to play the game.”

Year one was about putting the foundation in place. Year two is about building on that foundation.

“Most of our work is moved from competitive-enabling work or business-essential work to our competitive work. And so what’s really happened is more time is being spent, and we can spend more time because the team is more prepared to focus on the actual game itself. Knowing that I’m the type of coach that won’t allow that to happen unless the other things are being handled the right way and at a level I’m comfortable with, I’m looking to build a program of consistency and sustainability with no shortcuts,” Mendenhall said.

“Sometimes that was at the expense of our competitive work, but again, I’m looking for something that will be sustainable and the foundation won’t skip any steps,” Mendenhall said. “More of our work to this point in year two has now been competitive work than competitive-enabling or just business-essential and trying to get those things right. And it’s been noticeable, and as you already heard the players say, it’s because I don’t really allow them to move more than one day ahead. Each day has to be a masterpiece before we move on, or we repeat the last day.”

Story by Chris Graham