Mendenhall on rebuilding Virginia, going out to dinner, and a special Haka gift

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall

Several comparisons have been drawn over the last couple of years about the similarities in the late George Welsh’s start at Virginia and Bronco Mendenhall’s.

One thing in particular that both Cavalier football coaches shared was that UVA’s program was in much worse shape than either realized once they came to Charlottesville.

I remember Welsh telling me a long time ago about his impression of Virginia’s program after he had been here for a year.

“A lot worse that I expected,” Welsh said. “I was wondering, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”

Mendenhall had somewhat of a similar experience that he shared with The Deseret News recently.

“I had hoped when I arrived at UVA that we would be able to be competitive and have a nationally ranked program within a four-year period,” Mendenhall said. He also told me that down in Charlotte last December on the day before the ACC Championship matchup with Clemson. “I was hopeful we could do it in three.

“But after seeing the first year, there wasn’t a single area in the program here that was not in a deficit beyond what I had ever imagined. I couldn’t find a single point of the program that was even industry standard for a Power Five program. It’s been a four-year process to even get to where we’re industry-standard from an internal perspective.”

A master plan has been developed by UVA AD Carla Williams in hopes of the Cavaliers’ program making a major leap forward in terms of facilities.

Low profile

While the UVA and BYU programs may have been different in terms of a rebuild, at least Mendenhall can go out and have a steak in Charlottesville without being mobbed by fans.

Charlottesville has always kind of been that way, perhaps because so many celebrities have lived here over the years and for the most part, they are given their privacy by fans. Bronco is no different.

“I struggle to even find a way to describe what that’s like as the head coach at BYU,” Mendenhall said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be a 24/7 ambassador and representative of our faith through the game of football. I embraced that to the very best that I could. I also did it imperfectly

“At UVA, I live in relative obscurity, meaning in relation to the BYU experience. On occasion, Holly and I can go out to dinner and only be kind-of recognized, rather than the meal is pretty much impossible to eat [at BYU] because of the constant interruptions and people and exchanges. That’s building over time [in Charlottesville], but the relative obscurity we have as a Division I coach at a Power Five level has really been refreshing in terms of some of the privacy we’ve had and been able to enjoy in relation to what was required at BYU, which is great and is expected and is required. But for someone that is introverted like myself, that was a challenge.”

A Haka farewell

When Bronco Mendenhall lost his father, Paul, last summer at the age of 87, the UVA coach shared some special stories about his dad and their wonderful relationship.

One story that followed weeks later in their season opener at Pitt, was also very touching.

Here it is in Bronco’s own words:

“My personal assistant at BYU was Ashley So’oto, married to Vic So’oto, who was a coach on my staff (at UVA) and is currently an assistant at USC. Ashley attended my dad’s funeral (in Alpine, Utah). She came back from Virginia and it meant a lot to me that she was there.

“I didn’t know this was happening, but she wasn’t really aware of how strongly my father was tied into the New Zealand and Maori culture. His funeral was heavily influenced by his missionary service as well as being a mission president in New Zealand.

“I shared at my dad’s funeral that my last memory of my dad was as I was pulling out to leave, he came out on the front lawn with his cane. He came out and was doing the Haka on the lawn. I was just in tears. I saw it in the rearview mirror. I shared that story at the funeral. Ashley relayed that to Vic.”

Mendenhall went on to explain that Virginia has a tradition of visiting the opponent’s stadium when the team comes off the airplane prior to going to the hotel. There at the opponent’s stadium, he or someone from his staff shares an inspirational message.

“I was in the locker room having some quiet time. The team was walking the field. A player came and said, ‘You’re needed on the field.’ I went out there and my team was aligned in formation and did the same Haka that my dad did, as my last memory of him. I didn’t know anything about it. It was the most beautiful gift that I ever received.”

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