Bronco Mendenhall spent virtually his entire playing and coaching career, a span of 30 years, in the western part of the United States before making the move from BYU to Virginia last winter.
That doesn’t mean he hadn’t made friends in the coaching fraternity who called the Mid-Atlantic home. Now, coming off his 100th career victory and his first at UVA, Mendenhall will face one of those respected peers.
Saturday, the Cavaliers are set to face Duke and head coach David Cutcliffe. Even though it’s Mendenhall’s first ACC contest, there will be plenty of familiarity between the two coaching staffs.
Exchanging ideas and sharing strategies with other coaches was a common practice for Mendenhall at BYU. It’s how he got to know former East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill, who is now the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator. Cutcliffe also became a part of Mendenhall’s circle of friends. Even though it’s their first time facing each other as ACC rivals, each coach as a good idea of what the other wants to do.
“I’ve always looked at a lot of BYU film because we have been friends,” Cutcliffe said during this week’s ACC coaches teleconference. “Things do change when you have different personnel to work with. They were built a certain way at BYU, and they will build themselves that way at Virginia. But they had to first take what they had and make it work. On both sides of the ball schematically, it’s very similar, if not the same. The impressive part of it is they play like a well-coached football team. You can visibly see them improving as they become more comfortable with the way things are done with a new coaching staff.”
Virginia’s improvement was certainly on display last weekend as the Cavaliers upset Central Michigan to improve to 1-3, but UVA faces a tough stretch of ACC games in coming weeks and would certainly like to continue its momentum against a Duke team that just picked up a huge win of its own against Notre Dame.
Much of the mutual admiration between Mendenhall and Cutcliffe comes from their ability to build winners at programs with unique challenges. Mendenhall won 99 games in 11 years at BYU, where his players were held to a strict honor code. Cutcliffe has taken Duke to an ACC Coastal Division title and the Blue Devils’ first bowl victory since 1961, despite tougher-than-average academic restrictions.
While at BYU, Mendenhall visited both Cutcliffe at Duke and Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern to observe firsthand how they run their programs. He now faces similar academic challenges at Virginia and would certainly like to see the Cavaliers get to the level the Blue Devils have reached under Cutcliffe.
“I was really impressed with the depth, the substance and intent of how to get the most out of young people, but also how to get the most out of them in a specific place and environment that really emphasizes academics and character. I thought both, and still think both, do a really nice job. And so I’ve remained and I still consider good friends with both and I admire and respect both. And this will be the first time I’ve coached against Coach Cutcliffe, but man, I think the world of him. I really am impressed.”