SALT LAKE CITY — The best coach at the right time describes the BYU tenure of Bronco Mendenhall, who rescued the football program from an abyss and then bolted for a better situation at Virginia.
Mendenhall won 99 games in 11 seasons at BYU, building a consistent winner before seeing a downturn after the administration decided to leave the Mountain West to become an independent beginning in 2011. During Mendenhall’s time in the MWC, the Cougars were 56-21 and won consecutive championships in 2006-07. In his five seasons playing as an independent, BYU was 43-22 and lost every game to rival Utah.
Not a fan of being an independent, Mendenhall left his Utah roots behind in 2015 for the challenge of rebuilding Virginia and the chance to compete in the Power Five Atlantic Coast Conference. In the process, he enjoyed the benefits of a massive pay increase.
Over the last four years, Virginia has gone from 2-10 to winning the Coastal Division last season and earning a berth in the Orange Bowl. Along the way, Mendenhall has fully bought into the conviction in the difficulty of playing as a Power Five program.
In a detailed interview, longtime Deseret News writer Jeff Call asked Mendenhall about coaching a Power Five program with the associated resources.
“It’s just so confirming that the Power Five is the elite level of college football,” Mendenhall said. “It is everything that I imagined it would be in terms of competition. Every single week, there are exceptional coaches and exceptional players — every single week.
“Rather than three or four games prior to or surrounding, almost trying to find any opponents you can find, which is a real challenge in independence, the four or sometimes five quality games you could get is every single week at the Power Five level. The growth and challenge that is for our players and staff is just invigorating, as well as the support and resources you’re given to take those challenges on.”
During the early times as an independent, BYU promoted the opportunity of playing any team all around the country. Mendenhall obviously is offering a different viewpoint at Virginia, extolling the apparent arduous nature of playing quality competition.
But let’s take a closer look at the schedules and competition ACC teams play. Upon review, Mendenhall may be stretching the definition of elite competition every week.
For starters, the ACC plays only eight conference games, thus leaving four games scheduled at each program’s discretion. Last season, Virginia went 3-1 in nonconference games, beating William & Mary, Liberty and Old Dominion and losing to then 10th-ranked Notre Dame.
The Cavaliers, who finished 9-5 (6-2 in conference), played three other ranked teams last season. They beat rival No. 24 Virginia Tech for the first time since 2007 and then got destroyed by No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game and also lost to No. 9 Florida in the bowl game.
Four of Virginia’s six conference wins came against teams with losing records. The other two wins were over Pittsburgh and North Carolina, neither of which finished above .500 in conference games.
The Cavaliers also went 3-1 in nonconference games in 2018, beating Richmond, Ohio and Liberty. They lost to Indiana, which went 2-7 in the Power Five Big 10.
Regarding his stance at BYU, Mendenhall was right in stating independence is not sustainable over the long term. At the time, given the horrendous television contract and miserable exposure, BYU was wise to jump the MWC.
But the program isn’t nearly the same anymore. Needing time to revive a downtrodden program that had suffered three consecutive losing seasons and lacked discipline, Mendenhall built a MWC powerhouse over four years starting in his second season.
Compared to Mendenhall’s glory years, the program slipped during his time as an independent. Aside from going 9-4 in Kalani Sitake’s first year as coach, BYU has dropped another notch over the last three seasons and didn’t have a NFL draftee last month for the first time since 2015.
As an independent, BYU doesn’t play elite competition every week. Neither do most Power Five programs.