For coach Bronco Mendenhall, leaving Brigham Young University to take the job at the University of Virginia nearly five years ago was, in many ways, a leap of faith and it has impacted him and his family more than he could have ever imagined.
No doubt, it’s a decision that’s transcended football.
“It’s been the hardest challenge in my life but also the most gratifying,” he said.
Mendenhall and his wife, Holly Mendenhall, uprooted their family to move from Utah County to Charlottesville after he spent 11 years as the head football coach at BYU. It’s been an experience that stretched him professionally and spiritually.
The circumstances surrounding that change, as well as being a Latter-day Saint head coach at a Power Five program on the East Coast, has brought him closer to his family and closer to his assistant coaches.
Many on his staff at BYU are, like him, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — offensive coordinator Robert Anae, defensive coordinator Nick Howell, co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga, running backs coach Mark Atuaia, quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, offensive line coach Garett Tujague, inside linebackers coach Shane Hunter and football analyst Matt Edwards.
Most of them followed Mendenhall from Provo to Charlottesville in January 2016.
It may have seemed like an odd fit at first — a bunch of Latter-day Saint coaches at an Atlantic Coast Conference program. Due to their beliefs, they don’t hold football meetings or practices on Sundays, which is unusual in the world of college football.
But they’ve experienced tremendous success, having led Virginia to its first-ever ACC Coastal Division championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl last season. And the Cavaliers are looking to defend that championship in playing in the pandemic-impacted fall season.
Mendenhall is amazed by the growth and accomplishments of his assistant coaches, both on and off the field, as they’ve left their comfort zones. Almost all of them attend the same Latter-day Saint ward.
“It’s the most unique experience that I think there has ever been in college football,” he said. “It’s galvanized a group of people and it couldn’t have happened without this distance of a move and the challenges we’ve taken on.”
It’s been a rewarding adventure for Mendenhall and his wife, Holly.
“Here comes basically this movement across the country doing the reverse Lewis and Clark expedition. Holly and I knew our intent when we came to U.Va. and what we wanted to do. But we’ve realized the primary reason we’ve come is the development of future leaders of the Church,” Mendenhall said.
“Our coaches and their families, who they’re becoming, we’re watching it transform right in front of our eyes. Husbands and wives and their callings that they’re holding and their kids in the early-morning seminary and in the minority of how they’re coping and seeing their faith and their testimonies build. That is the primary reason we’re here. Then a temple site was just announced in Richmond. It’s like after the trial comes the clarity. It was a football-oriented or football-defined move, but it wasn’t a football-oriented or football-defined purpose.”
For Mendenhall’s family, moving to Virginia has produced some unforeseen outcomes for his family, such as his oldest son, Cutter, deciding to attend BYU after his mission to Uruguay.
Before leaving for Virginia, Cutter had his sights set on attending Oxford or an Ivy League school. But during his junior year at Western Albemarle High School, Cutter decided he wanted to attend BYU after his mission. He took extra classes so he could graduate early from high school and then serve a mission.
“The most important thing to him was his faith and being around like-minded people. That clarity happened within less than a six-month period of time by leaving and attending school here,” Mendenhall said. “That was a transformative period of his life. Pursuing education and the literary part of that and as well as the performing arts of it possibly, having it become so clear that what mattered to him most was his beliefs. I don’t think that could have happened in nearly the same way had we stayed in Utah.”
Mendenhall added that his other two sons, Breaker and Raeder, also underwent a similar realization.
“It became abundantly clear to him and the rest of the kids just how important their faith was to them,” he said. “That was the greatest gift that could have been given.”
Cutter returned from a mission in Uruguay last November, then enrolled at BYU for winter semester.
“He smiles every time he talks about it. He said it’s the absolute perfect fit for him. He can’t imagine it being any better,” Mendenhall said. “From what I know of BYU and after being there, BYU is made for someone exactly like Cutter. And Cutter is made exactly for a place like BYU. It’s just a magical thing to see — where there’s an institution and a young person that can find such commonality and such fulfillment. It’s the ideal. It’s really set a mark for me. Anyone that chooses the University of Virginia, I hope I can help them be as happy as he is and as aligned as he is with where he’s chosen.”
During his first semester at BYU, Cutter participated on a folk dance team and an a capella group. He also took a Mandarin class.
“He likes challenge, like his dad,” Mendenhall said. “The harder the better.”
When the Mendenhalls first arrived in Charlottesville, they spent the first three or four months living in a hotel until they found a property and a home to renovate — a 30-acre sanctuary located only 12 minutes from his office on campus.
“We wanted to make it into the U.Va. football compound,” he said. “At the time we left BYU, we had the most kids of any staff in college football. We had all these young families trusting and believing in us and so we wanted our place to be a place where everyone could be.”
During the long renovation period, the Mendenhalls lived in a recreational vehicle on the property, which produced some memorable moments.
“Holly absolutely hated every second because the kids would go off to school and I’d go off to work and here she was in the RV. The minute the house was done, she listed it and sold it without consulting any of us,” Mendenhall said.
“She had the wildest celebration possible when they came to pick it up. It was an amazing experience. The kids and I loved it. Holly didn’t. But I would say the reason we loved it was because it was like camping but you couldn’t get away from each other and go slam the door to your room if you’re mad at someone because there were no rooms. There was a lot of problem-solving and communication. Our family literally became closer in every way through that experience.”
The Mendenhall home features a swimming pool with a diving board. There are horses and other animals and a place to fish. Because Mendenhall and his staff had so many young families, they designed it with the idea that their home could be a gathering place.
“In the summers, that’s usually where the staff is, here, in some capacity at different stages,” he said. “We thought it would be great for our team as well, for them to interact.”
Mendenhall, who is serving as the gospel doctrine teacher, and most of his staff attend the same Latter-day Saint ward.
“Almost every group of youth is accounted for in our coaching staff. Almost every organization has one of our staff members as teachers or leaders in that. It’s just been amazing,” he said. “Our staff was really close before. I invited 14 staff members (from BYU) to come and they all came. But seeing them not only in the workplace but each Sunday also, serving alongside them in that capacity, it’s the most unique experience that I think there has ever been in college football. Those relationships, wow, they were close before but they’ve been galvanized in a way that I don’t have the words to describe.”
Of course, Mendenhall and his staff field a lot of questions about the Church from players, campus officials and people in the community. Professor Kathleen Flake is the Richard Lyman Bushman Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia. An intro to Mormonism class is offered on campus.
“A lot of my players take that course. One of the assignments is to come to a sacrament meeting. When our ward sees a handful of kids that are players by assignment, there’s a unique crossover there,” Mendenhall said.
“When my son got his mission call, I had a chance to explain what that was to my team. They were always asking how he was doing in Uruguay. What do they do? Even though it’s not proselyting, there’s this awareness of this backstory narrative of all these folks that have come from this place and are of this faith and what does that really mean and what does it look like? And how come? That’s pretty typical. It is organic and natural. It’s seamless and working really well in terms of promoting understanding.”
Before the pandemic, players would frequently visit the home of the coaching staff on Sundays. “That’s a tradition we have here,” Mendenhall said.
Almost every team holds practices or film sessions on Sundays. But not at Virginia.
“On Sunday, we don’t do football, even in-season. It’s the same day off when we were at BYU. That, in and of itself, generated a lot of interest in terms of ‘How come?’ When folks saw that was sincere, whether we were winning or losing that that’s what happens, that was a powerful narrative,” Mendenhall said. “Our players wanted to know why that was happening. When players come over to our coaches’ homes for dinner — they’re allowed occasional meals — they are seeing these unique families with little kids. That’s generating a lot of questions.”
Mendenhall couldn’t have imagined the blessings that he, his family and staff have received as a result of the cross-country move to Virginia.
“Who they’re becoming and the roles they’re holding and the influence they’re having — I would have never guessed, nor did I know that was the reason,” he said. “Our kids and our staff, they were amazing people before. For my wife and I, the greatest gratitude we have for the move now is the development of our kids and the development of our staff.”