You just knew Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall would embrace the Military Bowl. Touring Washington, D.C. Playing the Naval Academy, at its stadium no less, an arena replete with arches detailing past wartime battles.
The Academy’s mission, the region’s history, the Midshipmen’s football heritage: All of it appeals to an erudite side of Mendenhall that’s been apparent since he took over the Cavaliers two years ago.
Sure, his occasional diversions into organizational theory are baffling, but overall Mendenhall’s unusual approach is intriguing. Moreover, it worked for 11 years at Brigham Young, where his Cougars won 99 games and earned 11 postseason invitations.
Will it work at Virginia against a resurgent ACC? The Cavaliers’ 6-6 regular season and first bowl bid since 2011 represent considerable progress, but the final answer will hinge on whether enough ACC-caliber prospects are taken by Mendenhall’s everything-is-earned, including uniform numbers, mantra.
Mendenhall’s challenge is to restore Virginia to the consistent winning it enjoyed only during George Welsh’s 1987-99 prime, and that figures to require considerable time.
Mendenhall spoke of that journey during a Military Bowl media call Sunday. He applauded the Naval Academy and its coach, Ken Niumatalolo, whose son Mendenhall coached at Brigham Young.
“I’ve known Kenny and his family and what they stand for for a long time,” Mendenhall said, “and he’s all that’s right with college football, in my opinion, and runs a class program, represents values that I think are great for young people and the game, and I couldn’t think of a more worthy or fitting opponent.”
Most poignant and revealing, Mendenhall shared a recent family experience.
Responding to a question from the Associated Press’ Hank Kurz, Mendenhall compared the prospect of coaching seniors such as Micah Kiser, Quin Blanding and Andre Levrone for the final time to watching his oldest son, Cutter, leave last week for a two-year Mormon mission to Uruguay.
The Mormon church encourages all young men to serve a mission. Cutter Mendenhall, 17, graduated from Western Albemarle High School early to begin his work in Uruguay.
“We walked to the airport,” Mendenhall said, “checked him in and watched him go through security, and our faces were pressed against the glass watching the bags go through, and the reality that he was leaving and there was going to be this (two-year) separation. It was, wow.”
Any parent can relate to the raw emotions of a child leaving the nest. Any coach can relate to the appreciation of players who embraced a new staff’s values and demands.
At BYU, a school named for a revered Mormon leader, Mendenhall coached scores of young men who had served missions. He knows the spiritual, emotional and even physical maturity those experiences offer.
But as a young man, Mendenhall declined a mission, electing instead to pursue his football playing and coaching career.
“Even though I knew (going on a mission) was right, I didn’t walk away from my football career to serve,” he told the Salt Lake City Deseret News upon being named BYU’s coach in 2005. “I really have, throughout my life, done everything I can through my coaching to represent myself and this church in a way that maybe wouldn’t make up for it, but make sure that everyone knew what I really believed.”
Mendenhall brought that devotion to U.Va., most visibly in his resistance to working Sundays, a non-stop, business-as-usual day for most college football staffs. The Cavaliers’ condensed preparation for their Black Friday game against Virginia Tech, this on the heels of a road test at Miami, forced Mendenhall to acquiesce, and the concession clearly pained him.
“This was the only time since I’ve been a head coach that we came in, the coaches and their families, we went to church Sunday morning, and then we all came in (to the office) at 1:30 on Sunday and worked that afternoon,” he said, “just because travel occupied our normal preparation window. And I didn’t like it at all.”
Mendenhall’s principles certainly made an immediate impression on Carla Williams, who officially takes over for the retiring Craig Littlepage on Monday as Virginia’s athletic director. During her introductory news conference in late October, Williams recounted her first meeting with Mendenhall the day prior.
“I stopped him in the middle of a sentence,” Williams said, “and I just said, ‘Can I shake your hand?’ Because I believe the way that he is trying to do it is the right way.”
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