Few people saw Bronco Mendenhall to Virginia coming.
The Cavaliers nabbed a well-respected, principled coach who had successfully built up a program out west. And they did it completely under the radar after so much focus had been on hiring a veteran coach who had fallen out of favor with a tradition-rich SEC powerhouse.
Virginia fans may not have seen it coming, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Cavaliers athletic director went right back to the same playbook that gave the school basketball coach Tony Bennett. All Bennett has done since the Wahoos wound up with him instead of former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith is guide Virginia to back-to-back regular season ACC championships while spending most of the past two-plus years ranked in the top 10.
The Mendenhall hiring is eerily reminiscent of Bennett’s and if the results are even close to the same, Virginia fans will have plenty to celebrate in the coming years.
As a matter of fact, Mendenhall brings a deeper and even more impressive resume to Charlottesville than Bennett did after turning around the Washington State basketball program and taking the Cougars to the Sweet 16.
Mendenhall comes to Virginia after 11 years as the head coach at BYU. The 49-year-old has taken the Cougars to a bowl game each season, going 99-42 and 6-4 in bowl games. This season, BYU is 9-3 and heading to the Las Vegas Bowl. Last season the Cougars were in position to possibly earn a major bowl bid and perhaps be in the mix for a College Football Playoff spot before star quarterback Taysom Hill went down with an injury.
In other words, Mendenhall has done nothing but succeed at BYU, a school where athletes are held to a high standard both on and off the field. Virginia also has high standards for its student athletes, but if Mendenhall can put together winning rosters given the restrictions at BYU, he should have little trouble doing the same at Virginia, which is the flagship institution in a talent-rich state.
With the move, the Cavaliers helped continue the week of shakeups throughout the ACC. The conference has had national championship contenders in Florida State and Clemson the past few seasons with the Seminoles’ Jimbo Fisher and Tigers’ Dabo Swinney among the game’s elite coaches. But there has long been a lack of depth in the ACC coaching ranks. Frank Beamer was on the way down at Virginia Tech for several years before retiring this season and nobody else in the conference really had anyone who could be considered elite.
But in the past week or so the league has added three coaches who certainly bolster the quality and depth. Justin Fuente took over for Beamer after leading Memphis, a place that’s previously been one of the toughest in the nation to win, to back-to-back outstanding seasons. Virginia aggressively pursued fired Georgia coach Mark Richt, but Richt chose to take the job at his alma mater Miami.
The three new additions, along with North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, have suddenly left the ACC with a multitude of programs that have reason to feel optimistic.
Richt may very well end up being the Virginia football programs version of Tubby Smith. The disappointment of losing him should soon fade away when it becomes clear Mendenhall is the right long-term choice for the Cavaliers.
It shouldn’t be long before Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia seem like they were made for each other all along.