While BYU fans across the nation were trying to guess who BYU was going to play in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, head coach Bronco Mendenhall was cutting a deal with the University of Virginia. As a result, the University of Utah entered the picture and will play BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. Mendenhall’s Christmas gift from heaven to BYU and Utah fans everywhere — ‘tis the season.
While it’s been no secret Mendenhall wasn’t going to be a lifer like legendary coach LaVell Edwards, I doubt anyone in BYU’s inner-circle saw this move coming. While many view Mendenhall’s move as a lateral one, I view it as his next challenge in the maturing process of becoming a top-tier head football coach. Any way you slice it, Mendenhall’s announcement to become a Cavalier was a holiday surprise. Get used to it, there will be more BYU surprises to come with the selection of his replacement and the revamping of BYU’s football program.
The thing people really want to know is why? Why does the blue-blooded face of BYU football defect now? The answer is simple really, he had no other choice. I have listened to his tearful press conference over and over again. I encourage you to do so as well. Mendenhall drinks his own Kool-Aid. He is so devoted to BYU’s way of doing things, even after announcing his move to Virginia, he kept using possessive adjectives like “my and our” when he talked about BYU’s football team. When asked about the upcoming game between BYU and Virginia in 2019 he said he doesn’t want it.
“Quite frankly I have feelings for the players in this program — they’re not going away and they’re not going away in four years and I would just as soon that game be moved back to when I’m done coaching whenever that would be. I don’t want to play BYU and I don’t know how I’d handle that.” When pressed, he continued, “Whenever it is, if it’s up to me, I don’t want that to happen because this is the place that shaped — and had such an influence on my life and I don’t see how that could happen, and I hope it doesn’t.”
So why did Mendenhall pick up the swords in Virginia? He adamantly denies it was about the money, although he will likely triple his salary. Knowing Bronco the way I do, this cuts a lot deeper than cash. You may think I’m crazy, but Mendenhall is leaving BYU because he wants to go out into the mission field. He has achieved everything he can within the bounds of an LDS faith-based community and culture. He wants to take his show on the road to validate his leadership, moral and character-building principles with his new players at Virginia. It’s not a religious proselyting thing, it’s a personal-challenge thing for Bronco Mendenhall.
He has done all he can do at BYU. As head coach, he’s been the face of BYU football, yet to many he has seemed more like a church general authority or spiritual advisor. That is what BYU gives you — Mendenhall couldn’t be anything different. He gave his all and more to the university and his players; now his mission at BYU is over. The new challenge he has referred to repeatedly is a personal experiment, if you will. This move to Virginia is a test of his core beliefs that only change can bring. Mendenhall needs to grow, and that requires him to leave BYU.
BYU has some growing to do of its own. The football program is conflicted. BYU wants respect and it wants to play with the Power Five conferences, but doesn’t have the athletic guns to get itself there. The university’s honor code, strict academic requirements and unique religious culture pose a big challenge for recruiting, even to LDS players. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a different thing — a different thing that precludes it from reaching the heights of Power Five football.
When I have brought this up before, I’ve been chastised by many who say “well, BYU won a national championship in 1984.” Yes, they sure did. But back then BYU had a unique offensive passing scheme to go with the unique culture. That made a huge difference. Now the status quo has changed. Everyone else has adopted BYU’s passing attack, thereby neutralizing BYU’s previous advantage.
BYU needs to decide what kind of football team it is going to be and do what it takes to get them there. As BYU’s Athletic Director, Tom Holmoe’s selection of a new head football coach will prove decisive. More importantly, the university — as well as their fans — needs to be at peace with and happy about the results. BYU football means 8-10 wins per season and a trip to a bowl game. Those are what the results need to be. They may get into a Power Five conference, but any conference will do. Either way, the results will be the same, and that’s OK.
The results fulfill BYU’s unique approach to football and the four-fold mission of the LDS Church. In Power Five conferences, football isn’t No. 5 on the priority list. At Virginia, Mendenhall can move forward teaching his core principles without restriction. He can reshuffle his priority list and move football up a few notches while maintaining family, faith, morality, character, academics, service and any other valued moral concept he wishes to teach his players. What kind of success he will have with the Cavaliers remains to be seen. Will BYU make it to the big leagues in the next five years with a new coach? Or will the Cougars remain an independent in denial? Either way, life goes on, and in five years a lot can happen. Maybe Mendenhall will be ready for a new challenge and come back to BYU to build it all back up again — that is, if BYU still needs him.
I’ll see you from the sidelines.