UVA football undergoing culture change: Will it be enough to turn things around?

virginia footballNew UVA football coach Bronco Mendenhall had a message ready for his new team when he met them for the first time.

Which had to get edited, watered down, when he looked around the room.

“The team that was in front of me when I arrived at UVA, their eyes would not make contact. Their heads were down. They looked right on the verge and acted right on the verge of despair. I remember changing what my message was to them, what I had prepared, when I saw that, working to inspire at that point,” said Mendenhall, hired to replace Mike London in December, after the Cavs finished their fifth losing season in six under London, and seventh losing season in eight overall dating back to 2008.

Senior offensive lineman Jackson Matteo looked surprised when I told him that Mendenhall had just told reporters at the 2016 ACC Kickoff that he’d toned down what he intended to say to players in that first meeting.

“His first meeting, you should have seen it. It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it. The first thing he said was, Everyone sit up in your chairs. I was like, whoa …” said Matteo, recalling the expected jitters that came with meeting the intense Mendenhall, whose BYU teams averaged nine wins a year in his 11-year stint in Provo.

That’s what Mendenhall and his staff, most of the coaches with him at Virginia being guys he’d worked with at BYU, have been selling since Day 1.

“I think the guys were a little nervous, like, something completely new, a coach from Utah coming over to Virginia. It felt kind of weird,” said Micah Kiser, a junior linebacker who was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2015 after leading the ACC with 117 tackles.

What Kiser remembers from that first meeting is how Mendenhall “talked about how at BYU, they averaged winning this amount of games, and we want to keep that going.”

“He came here, he told his family, hey, we’re going to move to Virginia, gave up a comfortable life in Utah to come to Virginia, and we want to make him proud. We definitely want to do what we can, do our best, get the Virginia program on the map,” Kiser said.

Fans will see differences schematically – the defense will feature a 3-4 front, and the offense will employ principles that Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae are bringing with them from BYU that emphasize tempo and spreading the field to create running and passing lanes.

The biggest difference, though, will be in the area of physical fitness. Players had to meet specific, and very demanding, fitness benchmarks to be able to practice in the spring, what Mendenhall calls “tempo runs,” that he explains “allow us to play the speed we want to play at, which we think we can play harder, longer than most of our competitors.”

Mendenhall conceded in his talk with the media at the ACC Kickoff this week that he thought the increased demand on players in the area of fitness would lead to some players deciding to move on. Instead, he has been pleasantly surprised to see his new team rise to the level of expectations in that regard.

“If in past experience that’s taken players one or two or three years to get to that level, and it’s taken them three or four months to reach the same level here, then that means physiologically they’re more capable, because those things are very difficult to do. Mentally you’ve got to have some resilience. We’re using objective measures, which I didn’t think we’d meet as fast as we’ve had. That doesn’t guarantee success, but the preparation and the mindset I think it shows,” Mendenhall said.

It’s night and day, to Mendenhall, the team that is finishing up its summer workout schedule now, on the eve of fall training camp, and the group that he first met back in December, both in terms of their fitness and in their mental approach.

“If you look at us, we’ve always had the potential, we’ve always been close, but we’ve never been challenged the way we have under Coach Mendenhall,” Kiser said. “You want to talk about being held accountable, if you skip a class, you have to do 300 burpees, and that’s at 5 o’clock in the morning, before you do your real workout.

“He holds us accountable, he challenges us, inside, outside the classroom, he challenges us on the football field, and it’s just … we’re ready. We’ve been waiting for this. Every year, we come in optimistic, but this year, we actually believe it. This year we actually mean it, and everyone from top to bottom has bought into it,” Kiser said.

It also helps the players that they don’t have ink-stained wretches like me holding a tape recorder in front of their faces to ask them about whether or not their coach would be able to keep his job at the end of the season.

“Coach London got me to UVA, so I would never say anything bad about him. He was a great man, and he sacrificed a lot for the University of Virginia. Let me just say that. However, it is nice to come here and not be asked about Coach London’s future and his job and things that are way above my pay grade because I don’t have the answers. It is refreshing. It’s nice for the entire team, probably for the entire community, to not have that looming over our heads,” Matteo said.

“It was kind of a burden every year having to answer that, having to worry about that. It was pretty tough, but now it’s all about football, it’s all about ballin’,” Kiser said. “If you talk to our football coaches, they just love football, love being around the team. They like to come out to workouts, watch us, be around us. It’s definitely a positive energy, and we have a lot of optimism about this season.”

How that will translate onto the field remains to be seen. Mendenhall is certainly aware that progress will likely be incremental.

“We are a football program that bases will before skill. We work from the inside out. Eventually we’ll play good football. But we work on toughness and effort. We’ve made significant inroads in that regard. We think the football will catch up and catch up relatively quickly,” Mendenhall said.

If A’s for effort counted more than Ws, you could expect the upcoming 2016 season to be a success even before the first play from scrimmage.

“What the players know and already decided before I arrived is they believe it’s going to work just by simply looking at the number of wins and the track record of myself as a head coach,” Mendenhall said. “It’s not a guarantee. But they already decided they trust this is going to happen. They were willing to give it a shot knowing they’d already experienced losing seven of the last eight years and they don’t want that. Now they’re seeing the antithesis of that or the opposite of that and they believe it’s going to work.

“What’s compelling to me is now they see what work that’s going to take, they’re still going. That’s kind of the preserving or stimulating the progress, about asking this particular group, which has been so downtrodden, much more so than the team I inherited at BYU, which had three losing seasons. This was a step above that. But, man, they’ve responded quicker than what I thought, at least in terms of being confident that they can,” Mendenhall said.

I’ll let Matteo take us home from there, talking about how it is “refreshing to have a new start.”

“You hear Coach Mendenhall say this: masterpiece. He’s building a masterpiece at the University of Virginia. I’m just happy I get one year at it. I’m going to try to leave my mark the best way I can,” Matteo said.

“This team has so much talent. We just needed the right opportunity, and we have it now. We’re going to play our best football. We’re going to put it all together. It’s going to be very special. Being a fifth-year guy, having had four years of losing, it’s going to be very refreshing to get some Ws.”

Story by Chris Graham