Each month, Bronco Mendenhall loads his horses into a trailer and heads south from his Montana properties toward his boyhood home in Utah. There he spends about 10 days with his 91-year-old mom, who still lives on the 40-acre ranch where she and her late husband raised three sons.
“I’m cleaning the stalls of the same barn I did when I was in fifth grade,” Mendenhall said, the gratification in his voice audible through the phone. “They’re just my horses now instead of my dad’s.”
This freedom “to reconnect with life” is precisely what Mendenhall envisioned last December when he abruptly resigned after six seasons as Virginia’s football coach. But after nine months without the game he has played or coached since elementary school, Mendenhall feels a void.
Indeed, with the transparent aspiration of returning to the sideline, Mendenhall on Wednesday launched a weekly podcast entitled “HeadCoachU.” Produced and hosted by D1.ticker/Connect’s Bryan Fischer, the series will examine college football’s myriad issues, giving Mendenhall an avenue to reach administrators, fellow coaches or even young athletes and their parents.
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“I love helping and developing young people,” Mendenhall said during a 40-minute conversation with The Times-Dispatch, “and in the search for renewal and purpose and rediscovery ... I haven’t found a platform yet of the scope and scale and depth and impact and immersion, complete immersion, into these kids’ lives that I found in college football. ...
“There’s only one thing that I truly miss on a level that almost hurts, and that’s being with the kids every day and being able to answer their questions, being able to provide counsel, being able to enjoy their successes but also help them through their setbacks.”
Mendenhall could have revealed his intentions to coach again via Twitter, where he has more than 42,000 followers, or through back channels. But those avenues rang hollow. So about a month ago he asked former Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage for advice.
Littlepage hired Mendenhall from Brigham Young in 2016 and retired a year later. He serves as a consultant for a search firm, Collegiate Sports Associates, that’s affiliated with D1.ticker/Connect, and after talking with Mendenhall, he pitched the podcast concept to colleagues.
“This was an opportunity I saw to have somebody with a real good mind talk about relationships, leadership, teamwork, growing people,” Littlepage said. “He was very enthused about it.”
As legions of Virginia and BYU faithful recall, Mendenhall relishes every opportunity to explore those subjects, with or without the lens of football. And though quirky and an acquired taste, he has always seemed authentic, his voice needed in a college football world too often preoccupied by entertainment and economic concerns.
Not to suggest Mendenhall doesn’t understand, or appreciate, those pursuits. You don’t win 99 games in 11 seasons at BYU and coach UVa to an ACC Coastal Division title and Orange Bowl bid without a fierce competitive streak and work ethic.
But the unforgiving pace of leading a college football program exhausted Mendenhall in ways he didn’t anticipate. So with their three sons out on their own, Bronco and Holly Mendenhall, yearning for time and space, paused his coaching career.
They began building a lakefront home in Montana, which is scheduled for occupancy this month, and an expansive ranch a few miles away. They sold their Charlottesville ranch to former Virginia All-American Chris Long and moved in temporarily with Holly’s sister, also in Montana.
Mendenhall has entered calf-roping competitions, winning enough money to cover his fuel expenses, and trained for half-Iron Man triathlons, the latter effort shelved by a recent left Achilles tendon strain. He has huddled, in-person and virtually, with college and NFL coaches.
Most rewarding have been interactions with former players, far more frequent given the gift of time.
“The feedback is just mind-blowing,” Mendenhall said. “Not one comment, not one, about a game, or a score or a record or a season. ... What these young people are really craving — and it doesn’t mean winning isn’t important — [but] the memorable parts to these kids, and the [assistant] coaches and their wives haven’t been the games. [It’s been] the substantive relationships.”
Walking between classes with a starter; awarding a scholarship to a walk-on; using community service to teach life lessons: These are the moments Mendenhall treasures and hopes to reprise.
Though both are rooted to the West, the Mendenhalls are willing to venture anywhere they feel called. And rest assured, given their deep Mormon faith, any potential move will be vetted through prayer.
“When I stepped away,” Mendenhall said, “it wasn’t with this decision [to resume coaching] already in place. It was pausing to rediscover and to ascertain and to really think, while we’re building this structure ... for our family: Where can we have the most value? And is there something else with more impact than college football?”
To date, the answer is no.
“That’s just the clarity,” Mendenhall said. “Distance has brought clarity, and it’s also brought perspective, and I’m thankful for that. And it was needed, and I’m lucky that I could do it and pause to reframe and reconsider.”
But much has changed since Mendenhall, an Oregon State graduate, stepped down.
The conference in which he played, the Pac-12, lost anchor schools USC and UCLA to the Big Ten’s television riches. Name, image and likeness compensation for athletes has morphed into pay-for-play, and calls for revenue sharing between athletes and schools grow louder by the week.
In such times, would Mendenhall and his earned-not-given mantra resonate? Well, if nothing else, Mendenhall savors a challenge.
“Can it be done even in this era?” he said. “What I believe is, it has to be done, by someone driven by adding an alternative path and balance. Not at the expense of winning. ... So conference championships, with scholar-athletes, with teaching young people how to manage their name, image and likeness. ...
“I think the easy choice right now is to focus only on the money, only on conference alignment and only on outcome. And I think if college football only does that, I think we’re missing the entire purpose of even playing the game, which to me is teaching and developing young people to be amazing human beings.
“I don’t think that has to be an either-or choice, and it feels like college football is making it an either-or. ... Man, to be able to pull that off in the environment that exists today, that would be pretty special.”