BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall and the BYU football team rush the field after a successful Hail Mary play in a 2015 game against University of Nebraska-Lincoln. BYU won 33-28. (Mark A. Philbrick)

Opinion: Bronco Mendenhall’s return to BYU deserves an ovation

It’s been six years since Bronco Mendenhall last roamed the sidelines at LaVell Edwards Stadium. This Saturday, the former BYU head coach makes his return to Provo, but this time as an opponent now leading the Virginia Cavaliers.

Mendenhall shocked the college football world when he announced his decision to head east in December 2015 after a decade of commanding the Cougars. Much has changed since then, with Mendenhall having rebuilt a previously dormant Virginia program and successor Kalani Sitake finding his groove at BYU.

Sure, he had plenty of critics during his tenure at BYU and may be an opponent now, but the impact Mendenhall has had (and continues to have) on BYU football should prompt every Cougar fan at LaVell’s house on Saturday to offer a standing ovation out of respect. It shouldn’t even be up for debate.

Mendenhall took the reins at BYU at perhaps the darkest point in program history. Not only were the Cougars fresh off three straight losing seasons for the first time in 40 years, but a hideous and well-publicized sexual assault scandal involving four BYU football players provided significant damage to the program’s national reputation, forcing Gary Crowton’s regime out the door. The well-oiled machine LaVell Edwards had assembled over 30 seasons had been hijacked and shipwrecked, and there would be no easy fix.

Mendenhall — who had been serving as Crowton’s defensive coordinator — was reluctantly put in the driver’s seat. While his hiring took some by surprise, Mendenhall quickly proved to be the “loyal, strong and true” force for good that BYU football desperately needed.

Mendenhall’s personal mission was simple — he sought to help every BYU player grow spiritually and intellectually, develop character, provide public service and perform to allow a top-25 finish for the team each season. He didn’t shy away from the school’s Honor Code in recruiting, but rather embraced its principles to invite players to follow Christian values and standards in their lives. Recruiting tactics shifted from the best overall talent to the best overall fit within the mold of both the program and university.

BYU’s broken culture changed seemingly overnight, and so did their play on the field. After reaching bowl eligibility in Mendenhall’s debut campaign, the Cougars posted double digit wins in four straight seasons — something Edwards hadn’t even accomplished. More importantly, after Utah had become the powerhouse of the Mountain West and a national favorite as the first “BCS buster”, BYU beat the Utes in three of those four seasons for their first rivalry victory since 2001.

Bronco’s teams provided plenty of thrilling contests, including a number of down-to-the-wire affairs with the Utes, a thunderous upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in 2009’s season opener and consecutive “Hail Mary” miracles against Nebraska and Boise State in 2015. His Cougars played with a signature heart and hustle that led you to believe they had a chance in every game they played, no matter how formidable the opponent may have seemed.

Some of BYU’s most prized recruiting prospects were brought to Provo under Mendenhall’s watch, including current NFL talents Fred Warner, Jamaal Williams and Taysom Hill. Under Mendenhall, Ezekiel Ansah — the raw, unknown walk-on from Africa — became the NFL draft’s fifth overall pick.

No player better personifies Bronco’s legacy at BYU than Kyle Van Noy, the current Patriots linebacker with two Super Bowl rings. A disinterested LDS prospect in high school, Van Noy wanted nothing to do with BYU until hearing Mendenhall speak at a youth devotional. Various Honor Code-related demons delayed Van Noy’s arrival to the program by a year, but Bronco never gave up on him.

In a beautiful story of faith and redemption, it was clear how much Mendenhall loved Van Noy as a person despite having yet to suit up at BYU as a player. Once Van Noy arrived, he became arguably BYU’s most dominant defender in history. Bronco deserves some credit for that.

Back in 2014, Mendenhall even landed an early commitment from a decent high school quarterback prospect named Jaren Hall. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

Sure, the “tradition, spirit, honor” jerseys were corny, but the intentions were pure. After the scandalous circumstances Bronco inherited with the program, I’m sure he’s perfectly fine with the jersey hiccup being his most notable off-the-field controversy.

In reality, Mendenhall traded the off-the-field drama that preceded his tenure for off-the-field firesides and devotionals that helped turn BYU football into a missionary tool once again. Bronco rescued BYU football from embarrassment to relevance. He wasn’t perfect, as no coach is, but at the end of the day Mendenhall’s tenure should be summed up as both impressive and inspiring.

As a youngster, watching Bronco’s teams made me fall in love with Cougar football. Being from Virginia, it’s been satisfying to watch him right down the road rebuilding the Cavaliers with a similar BYU blueprint, making a previously laughable program respectable again.

For BYU, there’s no need to flex on their ex this Saturday. Life is too good for football in Provo to lose energy envying Mendenhall’s success or status across the country which, aside from Saturday’s contest and a few pirated recruits, hasn’t affected BYU in the slightest.

Sitake has finally delivered on the culture and on-field product he had promised since day one. The Cougars are a top 25 team, have finally beaten Utah again and are headed to the Big 12. They’re getting big time recruits and sending current stars to the NFL.

Mendenhall has taken UVA to an ACC title game, the school’s first-ever New Year’s Six bowl, and even scored a win over hated rival Virginia Tech for the first time since 2003. Sure, losing nine in a row to the Utes was tough, but imagine dropping 15 straight. That’s the hill the Cavaliers finally hurdled with Bronco at the helm.

Both teams are in the midst of special seasons with bright futures. Both head coaches are exactly where they want to be, and there’s no need to compare whether Bronco is better off at UVA than BYU is without him. Other than the actual football game, there’s no need to compete at all.

Just because Bronco is back with a different team doesn’t merit any sort of resentment. His contributions over a decade at BYU more than deserve a standing ovation when he’s introduced on Saturday night. Let’s just appreciate that a good guy like Bronco is having success by doing things the right way, and let’s be grateful that BYU has another good guy in Sitake who inherited a strong program from Bronco.

And let’s hope that Sitake ends up getting the win on Saturday.

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