Thursday, April 21, 2016

bronco's beginnings

A couple years ago, after Tony Bennett's rebuilding plan earned its first ACC banners, I wrote a column on how coaches earn the trust of their teams.  If you do X, then Y will happen.  If you set this screen, we'll score an easy basket; if you skip class, you'll sit on the bench; if you work hard and follow my lead long enough, you'll win championships.  Coaches demand X every day; the more Y happens, the more trust they'll earn with their team, and in Tony's case, Y happened every time.  It turned out to be a popular post, by the way.  Possibly the most well-received I've ever written out of 1800+.

So I was especially, irrationally happy to see this quote from Bronco Mendenhall in a Jeff White article:
"I've asked them to do some things that are pretty extreme, with not wearing Virginia gear and no numbers for practice. But it's interesting, because our team simply seems to want to know what standard it will take for us to have success, and they're trusting me that I'm setting that standard for them, and because of that initial level of trust, they're working really hard and matter of factly believing that if they do this, we'll have success."
(Emphasis mine.)

There it is.  If X, then Y.  I could not be a happier camper.

Such is the subtle, ground-up and ground-out way in which a Program is built.  Bronco has been speaking ever since his initial press conference about building an earn-it culture, where everything from the logo to the right to practice is earned via a series of hurdles....which is another way of saying if X then Y.  What is Bronco doing?  He's accelerating the trust-me process.  The bigger the X's and Y's, the more trust.  Bronco isn't waiting for the little ones, like "block this way and we'll get a first down" - he's putting as many big ones in play as he can, as fast as he can.  Better yet, ones he can exercise absolute control over.  All that stuff about earning the right to practice and doing drills over and over til they're done right and starting the up-downs over if they're not in sync - the discipline aspect is easy to see, but it's not just that.  It's planting the seeds of trust, and of a culture.

Culture will happen whether or not you put any effort into building it, of course.  Which makes it all the more imperative that you work on building it.  Quote number two that has me especially and irrationally excited comes from an Andrea Adelson article on ESPN:
"The locker room is spotless. 'If you would have walked into our locker room before, it might look like a little kids’ room, stuff everywhere,' running back Taquan Mizzell said. Smith chimes in: 'We had a pet mouse. Stuart Little was walking around.'"
Does an immaculate locker room have any outward bearing on whether you score enough touchdowns?  No, and it never will unless you had players literally breaking their ankle on things.  But there's obviously a disciplinary sea change in the works.  Is anyone surprised that Mike London had no problem with his players making a trash pile out of their living space?

Indeed, London was the master of failing to deliver Y.  Like when he promised increased focus on special teams discipline yet allowed a player to keep playing right after directly costing his team three points with a boneheaded play.  Yes, that was in large part a failure of the special teams coach - but do you think Bronco Mendenhall's staff would make that oversight?  We haven't seen them in game action yet, but I'm very confident the answer is no.

That Mizzell quote is telling in how it's said as well as what's said.  The teamwide acceptance of Bronco's methods is actually rather astonishing in its extent.  You have to assume some of the usual attrition is in the cards, but there's a general recognition that Bronco's ways are going to pay dividends.  That's not a complaint about how he makes them pick up after themselves, it's a tacit acceptance that the new is better than the old.  And it's almost like now that there's a little momentum and some visible progress (most notably on the scale) nobody wants to be the first to tap out.

Much of that is Bronco's approach - he's a hard-ass, yes, but more than that he's a velvet hammer.  He is many of the things that Mike London is, and much more that London never was.  The head coach at UVA is still a genuine and likable person who insists that his charges go to class, only now he also prioritizes discipline and recruits linemen.  (Counting transfer Jared Cohen and the likely transfer from Arizona State, five of Bronco's first six commitments play positions neglected by London.)

Almost everything we've seen out of Bronco so far is a vast and screamingly obvious contrast to the things London did poorly, and a huge improvement on all of it.  Talent is not lacking on this football team - it won three ACC games even with zero discipline and coaching that in several aspects was stunningly inept.  Now we have a coach that fills those gaps, gushes about the team's willingness to be coached, and furthermore, perfectly understands what (from this armchair) is the foundation of coaching.  X's and O's are vital, but X's and Y's even more so.  This is the start of something good.


Anonymous said...

"The head coach at UVA is still a genuine and likable person who insists that his charges go to class, only now he also prioritizes discipline and recruits linemen."

Those last three words made me laugh out loud. Funny cuz it's true.

Anonymous said...

Any change of a return from your long hiatus?

Anonymous said...

Would enjoy an update.

Anonymous said...

Brendan I hope you're planning to come back. Some context on the Richmond game would be welcome. Trying hard not to just write this whole season off. I knew this season would be rocky but that was brutal.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Hope you're okay Brendan. I (and I'm sure many other faithful readers) miss your insightful perspective, even more so after a game like Saturday's unexpected loss to Richmond. Please come back when/if you're able Dude.

Anonymous said...

Bronco had a certain amount of success at BYU preaching maturity to a group of 25 year olds, with 2 kids each. He really never won anything other than some mid level bowl games. He upset some higher rated teams and lost to lower rated teams. Big deal?

He is a legend in his own mind, as the saying goes, and won't recruit well enough to win many games a UVA.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

RIP From Old Virginia.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I put off my salute to FOV for the entire football season, hoping it was a respite, but the return doesn't look like it's coming. So it needs to be said that this was the best UVA sports site I ever found. Trenchant analysis, timely posting, humor that served the posts instead of eclipsing the analysis, meticulous research and unique formulas, all for free. I paid for it with my time, I suppose, and my clicks, for all the good they seem to have done, although I did lobby for you to be hired and paid to write the blog on other sites that paled in comparison. I hope, Brendan, you are happy with your hard-won free time, and I thank you for all the posts over all the years. You did something good and it was appreciated. I guess now I will finally stop checking this site every day, and google will have to auto-fill something else after I type fr-. Maybe it's time to learn French.
Thanks again, and Go Hoos!,

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