CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Because his birthday is one away from that of our nation’s first president, Bronco Mendenhall’s given name was going to be George. Both his mother and grandmother approved, but having a father in the horse ranching business meant a moniker more apt for his youngest son’s future endeavors. Little could his father have known a life of football was in the cards, but the name still fits.
And "fit" is how Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage describes the hiring of Mendenhall to take over the Cavalier football program. Mendenhall leaves BYU after 11 seasons, 11 bowl appearances and 99 wins, with their appearance in this month's Las Vegas Bowl still pending. Mendenhall's background is in defense, and there was some question as to why a team that was 73rd in the nation in total offense this year and 89th in scoring offense would look to the opposite side for a head coach.
"It is all about 'fit'" Littlepage said at Mendenhall's introductory press conference on Monday. "Everything that we saw on paper before the interview, and everything that we heard during the interview affirmed that this indeed was the very best fit for the University of Virginia."
Mendenhall will return to BYU to coach their bowl game, something he described as a "dealbreaker" during negotiations. But he has already met with his future team and promised them a program that would have accountability, discipline and effort, describing himself as "an effort based coach".
"I love, more than anything, guys that try hard" Mendenhall said. "Very few people try as hard as they can at any one moment in their life, but you recognize it when it happens. Skill will come along, execution will come along, but only after they learn to try hard."
He has already taken the temperature of his new roster to determine which players will embrace that motto and which will take some time to adjust. "When I came in, I was pretty nice to start" Mendenhall said of his first meeting, drawing laughter. "I was reading body language. I see in this room already those who can't wait to come and support and be ready and there are others who are skeptical. I get it. I will outlast you."
Mendenhall admitted to some challenges growing up with an unusual first name, which have likely prepared him well for his current profession. He now faces the multiple challenges of resurrecting a fan base that has left Scott Stadium more than 1/3 empty for many recent home games, and a Coastal Division that has also added Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech and Mark Richt at Miami, with whom Mendenhall served on the AFC Board of Directors.
"This division is now more competitive, unique and visible. I'm for that" Mendenhall said. "I want to play the best there is. We need to win first in our own facility, classrooms and practice. When our players learn what we're really doing and why, and when they're exhausted beyond where they've ever been before, and experiencing the growth that comes because of that, and those stories start to permeate out, I think support will come. And results will come."
"The players will determine the speed of that more than anyone else."
Mendenhall said the lure of being part of a conference with it's guaranteed schedule and TV appearances was not as much of a selling point as being able to promote a university like UVA. The cultural and academic requirements at BYU have prepared him for recruiting a specific type of player that will succeed at UVA.
"Who in a marketplace would give away a competitive advantage if you had it?" Mendenhall asked. "All young people need to know is if you want a phenomenal education and great football in an amazing community, where else would you go? Having all of those filters in place makes it easier for us, not harder."
But, they will have to wait. Mendenhall won't devote his full attention to UVA until after he has finished his commitment to his current team at BYU. For the next two weeks, Mendenhall will try to keep in touch with current players and prospective recruits as much as he can. If they cannot wait two weeks?
Maybe they're not the right fit.