In the fall of 2001, all I really knew about Bronco Mendenhall was what I had read in his online bio: he grew up in Alpine, played at American Fork High, then at Snow College and Oregon State.
Back in 2001, he was the defensive coordinator at New Mexico. One of his good friends, Gary Crowton, with whom he had met at Snow College and later coached with at Louisiana Tech, was in his first season as the head coach at BYU.
Going into that week’s game between BYU and New Mexico in Albuquerque, I thought I would interview Mendenhall. I figured it would make for a good story.
Of course, I never dreamed that it would be the first of hundreds of interview sessions with him.
I remember calling him at his office. He was cordial and generous with his time. During our conversation, he asked about me, and I told him that I lived in Cedar Hills, which, when he was in high school, was nothing but apple orchards. He asked me about my family, and I told him I had five sons. He had three boys himself, so we immediately understood each other.
My first impression of Bronco was that he had a good sense of humor and that he was surprisingly candid. He joked around, and laughed a lot during our conversation. When I asked him if he would ever have any interest in coaching at BYU, his response was as refreshing as it was stunning.
Most coaches in that position would say, “I’m not thinking about that. I’ve got a job here.”
Not Bronco. He admitted that if the opportunity presented itself, he would love to return home.
I about fell out of my chair.
It was one of the most enjoyable interviews of my career to that point.
A little more than one year later, Crowton hired Mendenhall as the Cougars’ defensive coordinator.
Then, at the end of his second year, Crowton resigned, and Mendenhall’s future at BYU appeared to be in jeopardy. Mendenhall had interviewed with BYU’s administrators, but he heard the news from a TV news report that former Cougar linebacker and longtime Utah assistant Kyle Whittingham had been offered the head coaching job.
Mendenhall gathered his family and told them their days at BYU were over. He had been offered a job as defensive coordinator at UNLV. He was prepared to take it.
As it turned out, though, Whittingham told BYU no. BYU hired Mendenhall.
Over the years, I’ve always enjoying talking to him, because he’s always answered questions thoughtfully and frankly, without pausing to weigh how people would take his comments.
A couple of months after he took the helm of one of the most high-profile positions in the state, I thought it would be fun to do a story on Bronco. Not very many people knew who he was and how he ascended to this position.
I requested through school officials to talk to Bronco for one hour. Bronco graciously agreed to talk to me, face-to-face, in his office on a Friday afternoon.
Interviewing is one of my favorite things to do, particularly in an intimate setting. Getting people, especially private people like Bronco, to open up about their lives is not always easy.
Anyway, I had promised Bronco that I would take just one hour of his time, so I kept checking my watch during our conversation. I didn’t want to violate that promise and encroach on his time any more than I had. He had a big job to do.
“It looks like our time’s up,” I said, looking at my notepad full of unasked questions. “I’ll leave now. But I still have some things I’d like to talk to you about. Could I get some more time with you later?”
Bronco looked at his calendar, and asked me to return the following week. “I’ll give you one more hour,” he said.
Just like the first session, the second session went just as fast. But thanks to his willingness to share his thoughts, feelings and background, I had plenty of information to write a feature story on him.
I could have written a book.
As it turned out, it was the longest story I have ever written for the Deseret News. Much of it I couldn’t work in due to space limitations.
After the story ran, I received dozens of emails, thanking me for letting them know a little about who Bronco is.
Covering his teams has never been dull. He continued to be candid with the media, which got him into trouble sometimes. But I respected that about him. He said what was on his mind, even if it wasn’t popular.
A few times, I’ve taken some of my sons to football practice with me. He greets them warmly and playfully teases them.
In 2008, the first road game of the season was in Seattle, against the University of Washington. I was assigned to cover the traditional pregame fireside (a tradition started by Mendenhall himself) at an LDS Church in the Seattle area.
It was there that he publicly introduced this controversial idea that winning football games was not his No. 1 priority, even though he is paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to win football games.
On the eve of BYU’s big game against Washington, Mendenhall told a chapel packed with Cougar fans and members of the Church that the outcome of the contest wasn’t the most important aspect of this weekend for him.
“It might be fourth or fifth,” Mendenhall said.
People in the congregation looked at each other. “Did he really say that?” they wondered.
Mendenhall explained that being a part of the fireside — which the team does the night before every game, home and away — and the chance to spend time with his wife and his children rank higher on his list than a football game.
“I won’t back down from that,” Mendenhall said.
As usual, the theme of the fireside put on by the players and coaches, was about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
“For those of you who can’t come to the game tomorrow, you’re here for the most important part of the weekend for us,” Mendenhall said. He added that some remarkable things have happened in his program since he took the helm nearly four years earlier, but, he added, “I’m not talking about our win-loss record.”
He added, “The only reason to have a football program at BYU is to bring people unto Christ.”
Being the football coach of a high-profile program like BYU, Mendenhall said he has learned about dealing with people who scoff and criticize.
On the eve of that season-opener in 2008, Mendenhall’s wife, Holly, related a story that happened earlier in the week. Their six-year-old young son was playing outside when some older boys walked by and said, “Tell your dad to do something about those fumbles.”
That was in reference to BYU’s four fumbles in its 41–17 victory over Northern Iowa the week before.
“You laugh,” Holly told the audience, “but I didn’t think it was funny. I asked my son, ‘Where are they?’ I wanted to tackle them.”
That weekend in Washington also marked a new tradition for the Mendenhalls. It was the first time he and Holly started bringing their sons on road trips.
“Really, I don’t think I’m willing to do this anymore without being able to find more time for my family,” Bronco told me. “I’m looking at every possible way to make that happen. There was really nothing to lose. Again, football isn’t my most important function. Iwould like my boys not to be a distraction, and I would like the team to still play well. If both of those things can happen where I can be with my family and still do my job, then it’s time to find out. As many barriers as I’ve put up, I think I’m taking them down one at a time just for the sake of what’s most important.”
Being a major college coach requires plenty of sacrifice and finding creative ways to spend time with family.
“My boys are playing soccer and those kinds of things. I’m not making many of those games. Friday morning is my date night with Holly. Then I try to bring my boys to the home games. I usually get home on Monday in time for a late family night. I don’t see them on Tuesday and Wednesday, really. Those are the two days I’m really busy. But then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday — so it’s getting better.”
It’s easy to forget how down BYU’s football program was in 2004 when he took over. The Cougars were on the heels of three straight losing seasons and in the throes of ugly, off-field incidents thatgave the program a black eye.
There are many that have criticized Mendenhall inside and outside the program for the way he’s done his job. He would be the first to admit that he’s made mistakes along the way. There have been big wins, and painful losses.
Over the past nine years, Mendenhall has brought spirit, tradition and honor back to the program. Sure, there have been some off-field issues that he’s had to deal with, but anyone that remembers that 2004 season can be grateful that those dark days are over.
Some say that Mendenhall has the toughest coaching job in the country. Coaching at BYU is unique in almost every way.
No, Mendenhall is not Bear Bryant, LaVell Edwards or Kyle Whittingham. He’s done things his way.
It’s the Bronco way.