Mendenhall leaves an unusual legacy at BYU

Mendenhall leaves an unusual legacy at BYU

(Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

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LAS VEGAS — As the sun sets on the horizon and the brisk afternoon transforms into a chilly evening, the multi-faceted Bronco Mendenhall era will close in — of all places — a city that promotes that lurid form of debauchery that is the polar opposite of the BYU way.

After 11 years as BYU's head football coach Mendenhall will go away Saturday, leaving behind a legacy that is almost impossible to sum up in a few words or a single story. Think of a preacher man, with a whistle dangling from his neck, mixing football and religion unlike anything BYU has seen.

Even at BYU, an institution that strides to be different, Mendenhall stands alone. And just like that he will be gone, leaving after the Las Vegas Bowl to take a big-money deal to coach at Virginia.

The game against Utah, BYU's bitter rival that has won the last four games between the two teams, won't define Mendenhall's tenure. No matter the outcome, depending upon the beholder's view, he will leave with a history filled with numerous descriptions and phrases.

"He's a man of faith, a man of discipline, a man of honor," said BYU senior receiver Mitch Mathews. "The players respect him a lot. He's done an unbelievable job."

To some, Mendenhall will be remembered as the coach who resurrected a downtrodden program that had suffered three consecutive losing seasons and was battered by a series of embarrassing off-the-field issues. To others, he will tied to an overemphasis of BYU's religious mission to the point of the coach thinking of himself as an LDS mission president as opposed to a man charged with winning football games.

No one can argue that he won games. If the Cougars finally find a way to beat Utah, Mendenhall will have won 100 games in his 11 years.

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall watches his players at towards the end of football practice. (Photo: Stuart Johnson/Deseret News/File)
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall watches his players at towards the end of football practice. (Photo: Stuart Johnson/Deseret News/File)

But for some, he didn't win enough to satisfy the hungry. Many of those in that camp also grew tired of the constant talk of religion, believing that stuff belonged to the LDS lay clergy. As a sports radio host for 13 years, I can attest to a stream of negative reaction to the latest Mendenhall sermon on the field. They would have traded in a few more wins against Utah over all the soul saving.

Asked before a recent bowl practice about what his legacy at BYU will be, Mendenhall said: "Just as someone who tried hard."

If only it were that simple.

At the time of his hiring, Mendenhall was a virtual afterthought as a candidate to replace the fired Gary Crowton. Mendenhall thought so little of his chances of remaining as BYU's defensive coordinator that he actively sought out a similar position at UNLV.

But after Kyle Whittingham decided to stay at Utah and take the promotion to become head coach, and the BYU administration did an about-face on assistant coach Lance Reynolds, Mendenhall got the job. From the first day, he blended football and religion seamlessly, much to the delight of LDS Church leaders who demanded the program be cleaned up.

In an incredible coaching job his first season, Mendenhall coaxed six wins out of a team that badly lacked confidence. The next four years were the golden age, as BYU won a total of 43 games and re-established some of the glory days that legendary coach LaVell Edwards created.

Unfortunately, after quarterbacks John Beck and Max Hall graduated, Mendenhall's teams began a string of average seasons by BYU standards. Along the way Utah hit the jackpot, getting invited to BYU's dream conference, the Pac-10.

Over time, as BYU mangled the quarterback position and assistant coaches were hired, fired and then re-hired, Mendenhall's mantra grew stale. His stiff public persona began to bother a significant portion of the fans.

Maybe sensing the growing discontentment, the coach bolted.

"It was time," he has said on multiple occasions since announcing his decision.

Yes, it was.

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