BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall held an end-of-the-season meeting with members of the local media on Wednesday, and revealed that he turned down an opportunity to leave BYU for another head coaching job after the 2011 campaign.
It was earlier reported by Deseret News columnist Dick Harmon that Mendenhall pulled his name out of consideration for the opening at UCLA; I've since learned that Mendenhall met with representatives from the Pac-12 school before deciding to stay at BYU. "I'm not sure," Mendenhall said Wednesday, when asked if he thought BYU would be his last coaching job.
During a free-flowing, 45-minute question-and-answer session, Mendenhall also:
spoke of trying to convince Riley Nelson to move to safety in early 2011 after becoming convinced that QB Jake Heaps "was our future."
stated that while the 2012 schedule "has nice balance," the 2013 schedule "will be the toughest schedule we will have played."
reflected on the in-season overtures from the Big East, saying "I just didn't think that was our future."
expressed the opinion that BYU and Utah would continue to play each other annually, moving forward. "Both schools would hate to be the one to say 'we're not going to play,'" Mendenhall said.
confirmed a couple of position changes, including the shift of linebacker Spencer Hadley from inside to outside.
You can hear the entire media session in "Cougar Cuts," above left.
Mendenhall said that upon committing to his most recent three-year contract in January of 2011, "there was a visible, kind of sigh of relief" from BYU AD Tom Holmoe and Vice-President Kevin Worthen. "I really think they thought that I might have had enough," said Mendenhall of their reaction to his decision. Mendenhall called letting his previous contract expire a "defining moment" in his BYU tenure, but said that "I am enjoying (coaching) more now than I have ever enjoyed it."
While not identifying UCLA as the interested suitor, Mendenhall talked about the head coaching job opportunity that came after the conclusion of the 2011 season, saying "we had a choice to make whether to stay or not this year. We hadn't really pursued any other places, but we had a very sincere and distinct chance to leave, and chose not to...and that, in and of itself reiterated to me the excitement that I have to be here. It was really a choice to stay, not a choice to leave, which was an invigorating process, to add momentum to our existing program. I'm excited, and really motivated to continue to grow our program, with the two years that I have (on his existing contract.)"
After his current contract expires following the 2012 season, Mendenhall said he "will re-evaluate again, but I don't ever see agreeing to ten or twelve (years) or something like that, so the next one, if we choose to stay at that point, will be probably three (years). I think it's better for everyone."
On whether he anticipates BYU being his last coaching job, Mendenhall said "I don't know; I'm not sure." Asked if he could see himself "doing this somewhere else," Mendenhall said "the number one question is: 'would I?' --and I'm talking about any interest--and then my first question to them is 'why would I, and what do you have to offer that would be very distinct and and different?', and if they're not interested in that, then I'm not a good fit."
"There are some places that are very distinct," said Mendenhall, "and I'm not saying these are the places, but if you were to say Army, or Navy or Air Force, or a strong academic institution...there has to be something else, besides football, otherwise I wouldn't be interested, and I think everyone understands that."
BYU's in-season change of quarterbacks was addressed, particularly as it related to offensive coordinator Brandon Doman's late-December claim that "we missed on the identity of this football team."
Mendenhall said "we believed that Jake (Heaps) was our quarterback, and that was going to be our identity, carried that through going into fall camp, and it really wasn't (our identity). But we believed it was, and it wasn't until we had dropped a couple of games...that we started thinking 'we were probably wrong.'"
Mendenhall acknowledged that "one of the early indicators" of BYU's improperly assessed identity was observed in the 2011 spring game, with what the coach said were "equal" teams.
"The way Riley (Nelson) led his team back, in overtime, to win--we just watched it happen in the season. Even in the Tulsa game, the players were saying 'we feel really good about this--look who the quarterback is, and remember the spring game.'"
"It mattered to them," Mendenhall said, "so they might have known even before I acknowledged it. They loved the way he played, and they believed he could bring them back, and sure enough, he brought them back a bunch of times this year."
Admitting that he did not put enough stock in Nelson's spring 2011 performance (coming back from a season-ending injury in 2010), Mendenhall conceded that he was "of the mindset that no matter what (Nelson) did, I had already seen what Jake could do, and believed that he was our future."
Furthermore, the coach said he "was kind of at the tip of the spear in trying to get Riley to play free safety, and he kept saying 'no, I'm a quarterback.'"
"(Secondary) coach (Nick) Howell and I kept saying what a difference he would make, and what a great leader he could be, because we already knew he was, we just didn't think it was at quarterback...and proved to be wrong."
About the evolution of BYU's offense to one featuring more mobile quarterbacks, Mendenhall said that it "is not overstated" to say that we are seeing a shift in how BYU's attack is operated from the quarterback position.
"I like that style" said Mendenhall on Wednesday, "and I like quarterbacks that play with that style. I like the competitive spirit, but I also like how difficult it is to defend."
"As I'm sorting out what kind of offensive identity I'd like us to have, those are the kind of quarterbacks I like. And that doesn't mean that they can't throw it, because that is still really important."
Mendenhall addressed the in-season conference realignment shuffle that had the Big East approaching BYU about football-only membership. "I just didn't think that was our future," he said, adding that the Big 12 "could be a great move for BYU, if that were to ever happen, and in time--but until then, I really like where we are."
"Until there comes a really compelling conference offer, I would rather be independent."
Mendenhall noted that scheduling as an independent remains a challenge, but that "we're having a little more success with our scheduling." He said the 2012 schedule "has nice balance," but that the 2013 is "strong, middle-to-end," and "will be the toughest we will have played. When you see it, you'll say, 'what, is he crazy?'"
Asked whether he was concerned that the new Pac-12/Big Ten scheduling arrangement would affect the annual BYU-Utah game, Mendenhall said "I haven't got any vibes" that the rivalry game is in jeopardy, and that "I think both schools would hate to be the one to then say 'we're not going to play.'"
"It might move to the opening game, it might move to number two or three, but I don't see (rivalry interruption) happening, because I don't think either school would want to be the one to say that's going to happen."
The coach looked ahead to the 2012 campaign, saying "I think our football team will be a very good team. We have 29 seniors--just that alone, that's a third of our team, and we have a lot of good players, so I like our chances in 2012."
"I'm really proud of the consistency," said Mendenhall. "We're winning a lot of football games--more than almost anyone in the country. Our peers in college football and the coaches believe we're one of the best teams in the country, as they're voting us every year. At some point that's going to be acknowledged at a higher level than it is now... but we're winning a lot of games, and we're winning a lot of games every year."
"If you were to say after seven years 'what's happened here?' I like the body of work, I like the direction of our team, and I like the consistency--and I think sometimes it's recognized more out-of-state than in-state."
Mendenhall said recently attending a national coaches' convention reinforced for him "the perception (of fellow coaches)...that we're one of the best programs in the country, and will be every year, from not only what has happened in the past, but going forward. And I agree with them."
The coach indicated that "in an attempt to get the four best players on the field," inside linebacker Spencer Hadley has been moved to the outside, where he will join Kyle Van Noy, Alani Fua and Ziggy Ansah in forming the two deep at the outside positions.
Mendenhall said wide receiver Jordan Smith has been moved to safety, where Daniel Sorensen, Joe Sampson, Mike Hague and return missionary Craig Bills will form an experienced nucleus. "Somewhere between Craig Bills, Mike Hague, Joe Sampson, will be the partner to Daniel Sorensen...we'll look to put the best two out there, in whatever combination that is," said Mendenhall. "Sorensen might move to free safety if we think his partner is a better Kat."
At the corner opposite Preston Hadley, sophomore-to-be Jordan Johnson is expected to have the inside track; "we think he has a chance to be really, really good," said Mendenhall on Wednesday.
On the recruiting front, Mendenhall noted that two scholarships were "freed up," with the departure of Heaps and Manu Mulitalo's decision to serve a mission; the coach said "two or three" players being considered for those spots will join 18 committed players on a campus visit this weekend. Mendenhall said "we'll probably target defensive linemen" with those open scholarships.
Mendenhall said he is "really excited" about incoming quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Ammon Olsen, who are already enrolled in school and have already "done a nice job impressing the team," according to the coach.
Both QBs are good runners; "they're really good athletes," said Mendenhall. "The trend of seeing Riley's mobility, and what Alex Kuresa has shown on the scout team, we like that style--not only being able to throw it, but being able to run it as well."
"A lot of the quarterbacks you'll see in the system right now and the way we go into the future will be more of the dual-threat type--and it doesn't mean they can't throw it. Most of you when you hear 'dual-threat,' you're thinking option an all that stuff. That's not what I'm saying. I like the mobility from a defensive perspective--it's really hard to handle those guys, and already, Taysom and Ammon have made an impact on the team."
Mendenhall said that while some players injured in the 2011 season remain questionable for spring ball, OL Braden Braden Brown, OL Houston Reynolds, RB David Foote and DB Preston Hadley will be out after surgeries to fix labrum tears (Foote's surgery has not yet been performed).
Additionally, OL Braden Hansen will have an ankle scoped, DL Jordan Richardson has a herniated disk in his back that requires attention, while kicker Justin Sorensen has a bone spur in his back that will be treated after a specialist is consulted. Mendenhall said he is not sure about the status of those three players for spring ball.
Players lost for the season in 2011 that could return for spring include FB Iona Pritchard ("He will be back," said Mendenhall) and TE Richard Wilson ("I think so"); TE Devin Mahina ("He might be back") may also return. The coach said TE Austin Holt is doubtful.
About Pritchard, Mendenhall called his return "giant," and likened him to "maybe even a more athletic" version of former BYU fullback Manase Tonga; able to block, protect, catch and run equally well.
Off-season team workouts began this past Monday; spring football starts on March 5, with the final practice currently scheduled for March 30.