|UVA fans watch the Bronco Mendenhall press conference|
It's been a little over six years and seven months since Craig Littlepage dropped a bomb by hiring someone other than Rick Barnes or Tubby Smith to coach the basketball team. That was surprising, and I reacted by going "who the hell is that?" and being incredibly put out for about 10 seconds - the amount of time it took me to look up where he was coming from. Oh. Washington State. I know two things about them. They've been in the Sweet 16 lately, and they have the basketball tradition of a potato. They're really good, it's really hard for them to be good, this might work.
But an ACC team trying to find a basketball coach can pick from a large set of possibilities, including other Power 5 conferences and the NBA, so dropping a surprise is not too tough. An ACC team trying to find a football coach has a much smaller group of candidates. Football is a smaller pool of teams and the ACC doesn't rank so high on the pecking order. The media is usually pretty good at identifying the list of available coaches, and surprises are usually unpleasant. Like when South Carolina turns to Will Muschamp and says, gee, you did such a bang-up job coaching in the SEC East with more resources than any other school in the division, why not take a crack at it with the degree of difficulty cranked way up? Surprises are bad.
Except, apparently, when pulled off by Craig Littlepage and whatever search firm dug this up. Littlepage saved me 10 seconds this time around - I knew exactly where Bronco Mendenhall coached. I got to skip the "who?" stage and go right to "this might work." The surprise lingered all weekend and into Monday and probably for quite a while.
The pessimistic view on UVA's head-coach gig has been that it's not very attractive because losing record. I've always called that nonsense. There's too much going for it for it not to be attractive, and coaches always think they can turn it around - I sure wouldn't want one who didn't. Mendenhall just vindicated the hell out of that position and took it just one step further: UVA's record was a reason he came. He had a great thing going at BYU, and there wouldn't have been any point to leaving it for a light maintenance job. It's clear from everything that's come out since Friday - up to and including Monday's press conference - that he's looking forward to seeing his approach can make a difference. A really big difference.
Mendenhall said all the right things at the presser about how UVA is a special place with high standards, which is what coaches always say when they're being introduced. A certain part of fanhood of losing teams involves wanting to be told that things will be all better soon, and the place for that is the introductory press conference, but that's not why Mendenhall blew that press conference away. He blew it away because he was very blunt and very uncompromising on certain things. Yes, it would have been a deal-breaker to not be able to coach BYU's bowl game. No, I'm not gonna sleep at the office. Yes, I'm going to pay attention to things other than my job, starting with my family. These are things usually used to demonstrate your all-in-by-golly commitment to your new job, and Mendenhall flat-out told everyone that's not what his commitment entailed. And it made everything else ring loud, clear, and true. Because of that, it's easy to believe that the buzzwords like accountability and standards aren't just buzzwords.
Mendenhall, in short, is Mike London with a plan. It's funny - going back, the things London talked about in his press conference, he did just that. He talked about being energetic, recruiting the 757, the character he wanted his players to exhibit. The word "discipline" was not spoken once. He never talked about the systems he planned on installing, other than a passing mention of a 4-3 defense. He was asked about his offensive philosophy and gave a generic answer about scoring a lot, and then said, "I think there are several positions that are key" and then proceeded to list all the offensive positions on the field except offensive line.
Eerie, then, how it turned out. Ironically, that too is reason for optimism. If London's presser turned out so prophetic, why shouldn't Mendenhall's? There was a lot of overlap. Both coaches said, more or less exactly, "you're not just getting me, you're getting my family." Both talked about academics and character and UVA being the kind of place where it matters, and that being why they wanted to be here. The difference is that London stopped there. Mendenhall laid out a plan, a system, and the results it's achieved so far.
And those results are impressive. BYU has an impressive football history, which belies how tough it is to win there. You have to convince players to go to a place with behavior restrictions topped only by military academies. Many of them leave for two years and don't do anything more physically strenuous than ride a bike. And Mendenhall further limited himself by being Tony Bennett-esque in demanding his recruits fit the requirements, even believing that they should have to sell themselves to him as much as the other way around. On the one hand, right now, I could probably do a better job than Mendenhall of knowing, say, which are the pipeline schools in Hampton Roads. (Not for long, but, y'know, this minute at least.) On the other hand, UVA is supposed to be this hard place to recruit to, and Mendenhall is coming from one of the few places where it's tougher.
It's the splash of the year, at just the right time. The ACC Coastal won the coaching carousel this year. The SEC hired two coordinators with no head coaching experience and one retread in all the worst senses of the word. Maryland and Rutgers did that too and those were the two better hires in the Big Ten, because Illinois hired a guy who was fired from Western Michigan. USC went full inbred, making it 2-for-2 in laughable hires by schools initialized USC. VT, on the other hand, made the best Conventional Hire in the country, and Miami took the best coach actually known to be available. Duke still has the guy that made Duke into a good football team. Pitt went the coordinator route last year but at least it was with the reigning Broyles winner. None of these are the guy who actually went undefeated in conference play, which would be Larry Fedora. UVA needed to find some way to keep up. Consider it done and then some. Bronco Mendenhall is both a damn good coach and the right coach. UVA needed both.