Sunday, January 23, 2022

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall’s surprise resignation tilted college football back on its axis a bit

Bronco Mendenhall’s image flickered onto a Zoom screen late Thursday for the last time as Virginia coach. It might as well have been the third act of a screenplay portraying this college football season.

In the performing arts, the third act is when all the loose ends are tied up. It brings a resolution. It’s when the story ends: fade to black, applause, drive home safely.

Mendenhall’s was quite a performance. He didn’t intend for it to be that way, but after this year, this season — even the last 96 hours — the Virginia coach was a compelling voice of reason in stepping down from his Cavaliers post.

Mendenhall suddenly resigned Thursday citing a need to “reassess, renew, reframe and reinvent, with my wife as a partner, our future and the next chapter of our lives.”

A few minutes prior, the 55-year-old coach stood up before his players and did the exact same thing Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly had done this week: quit. Except this time, it made perfect sense. It pulled at your heart strings.

After the turmoil and tumult of this season, Mendenhall nudged the sport back on its axis a bit. He added some common sense to the nonsensical.

The only drama was that the coach started having these thoughts on Sunday and acted on them on Thursday.

“I would love to say there’s been this buildup and a long amount of epiphanies and thought,” Mendenhall said. “But clearly this week there was a sense of clarity to me that I needed to step back from college football.”

Loose ends? There are plenty of them. An entire Virginia staff is now looking for jobs. Mendenhall himself doesn’t know what’s next. If the disparate minds that run the sport ever came together, Mendenhall would be perfect as the first commissioner of college football.

That’s the depth of his thought. That’s how well he is respected.

Others have quit for the sake of family life. Few with more class at a time when the game could use it. Mendenhall became the 24th coach to leave his position since the season started. Here’s the craziness of it: He’s is only the ninth coach to do so since the regular season ended.

The college football world and its axis have been tilted this year. The average coach has to reassess in a different way: from scouring the transfer portal to dealing with the complications that arise from name, image and likeness.

Is that worth 10 years of guaranteed money? In the last month, the number of college football coaches making at least an average NFL coach salary ($6.7 million) has doubled from four to eight. These are not necessarily bad things, just a glimpse of the landscape from which Mendenhall walked away Thursday.

The coach never said directly it all become too much. He did, though, pause for a moment to point out, in the last four days, 263 FBS players entered the transfer portal.

Coaches have quit, been fired and mutually agreed to depart in batches these last few months, but none of them gave up a $4 million salary to spend more time with their wives. We will take Mendenhall at his word and wait for the next chapter in a fascinating life.

Before Virginia, he had spent one of his 26 years in coaching east of the Rockies. For 11 years, the former Oregon State defensive back coached BYU. The program and the faith fit the devout Mormon perfectly.

But in 2015, just like on Thursday, he wanted to try something new and took the job at a place known more for its law school than linebackers. In six years at Virginia, Mendenhall went 36-38, leading the Cavaliers to the 2020 Orange Bowl.

The average fan probably doesn’t know Marc Bronco Clay Mendenhall. He was born in Alpine, Utah, made his name winning 56 games in six seasons at BYU, and was known for his unorthodox coaching methods.

Mendenhall has a saying: “No one will save you.” When things get hard, it’s on you. In his office used to be a picture of a journeyman offensive lineman, Ben Trent, who used his final year of eligibility at FCS Delaware.

“Coach,” Trent signed the picture, “thanks for not saving me.”

“I would like, at the end of my life, to have so much value that people forgot I was a football coach,” Mendenhall said Thursday. “That they would have to go back and look it up.”

He has always been a man in full who also coached football. Mendenhall raised three sons; two are on Mormon missions. The entire family rides and trains horses. Days after COVID-19 shut down the country, Mendenhall had the prescience to say out loud what the sport was thinking: There might not be a season due to the pandemic.

Thursday’s decision was half Jack Kerouac and half sensitivity training. Mendenhall began the Zoom basically telling reporters there was something more to life.

“It’s 31 years of straight football,” the coach said of his career. “And my wife and I will have been married 25 years in March. All we’ve known is the rhythm of a football season.”

He said it like it was a negative, like there had to be something more out there. Mendenhall ended the session offering reporters riding lessons … just not for free.

“I don’t know what’s next,” he said. “I would love to say I didn’t decide until I had a plan. I don’t have a plan.” 

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