Episode 151: Coach Bronco Mendenhall and his wife, Holly Mendenhall, talk about family, faith and football with guest host Sheri Dew
During a recent visit to their home in Montana, Sheri Dew asks the Mendenhalls the questions ‘we all wish we could ask them’
Episode 151: Coach Bronco Mendenhall and his wife, Holly Mendenhall, talk about family, faith and football with guest host Sheri Dew
During a recent visit to their home in Montana, Sheri Dew asks the Mendenhalls the questions ‘we all wish we could ask them’
Mendenhall — who also spent 11 years as head football coach at Brigham Young University — and his wife, Holly Mendenhall, speak about family, faith and football on this episode of the Church News podcast.
They are joined by fellow sports fan and guest host Sister Sheri Dew, executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp. and a former member of the Relief Society general presidency.
Bronco Mendenhall: There’s not a decision that I make or that we make that doesn’t start with our beliefs. And our beliefs then guide the principles, and our principles guide our choices, right? Our choices guide our actions, and you pull that thread, it’s back to our beliefs. And this idea of “You’re a member of the Church,” and then if you were to say, “and” after, there is no “and.” No, I’m a member of the Church. I work as hard as I can to be a disciple of Christ. I do all I can imperfectly to follow our Savior’s teachings. And back to your question of pausing my career at Virginia, I was feeling a little too tilted toward “football is everything.” And it’s not. Is it important? Yes. But things like this? This is the foundational part of why we’re on the planet. And that has to be anchored in a way that clearly is first.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Latter-day Saint football coach Bronco Mendenhall shocked college football fans when he resigned his post as head coach at the University of Virginia. Also the former head football coach at Brigham Young University, Coach Mendenhall and his wife, Holly, join this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about their decision. They are joined by guest host Sister Sheri Dew, executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp. and a former member of the Relief Society general presidency. Sheri is also a huge sports fan. During a recent visit to their home in Montana, Sheri asked the Mendenhalls the questions we all wish we could ask them. We are so lucky that we get to listen in as they talk about faith, family and, of course, football.
Sheri Dew: Fabulous. Now, we’re sitting here with you in your home in Montana. We’ve had the chance this morning to be over on your Montana ranch, see you on horseback, even a few others of us on horseback.
Bronco Mendenhall: Which was the best part.
Sheri Dew: Which was the scariest part. Why Montana? What brought you to Montana?
Holly Mendenhall: It’s where I’m from. I’m a very proud Montanan. I’ve always loved my roots. No matter where we’ve gone — when people say, “Where are you from?” I always say, “Well, I’m from Montana, but I live in New Mexico.” “I’m from Montana, but I live in —” but Bronco has said, “Why do you always say that?” And I would say, “Because I’m really proud of my roots. I’m really proud to be from Montana.” And so I always said, “I’ll go with you wherever you want, but I always want to have roots for the boys in Montana.”
Bronco Mendenhall: When I proposed to Holly, I had just been fired at Oregon State University. And so, I propose to Holly, she says yes to an unemployed football coach.
Holly Mendenhall: In Glacier — he proposed in Glacier National Park.
Bronco Mendenhall: Which is Holly’s favorite place. It increased my odds of her saying yes. That was a wise move on my part. So Holly says yes, and then we get a call from Gary Croton; he was working in Louisiana Tech. And so we accept a job in Ruston, Louisiana, and our honeymoon was driving a Ryder truck from Missoula, Montana, to Ruston, Louisiana. Stayed in Kansas.
Sheri Dew: How romantic.
Bronco Mendenhall: Exactly.
Holly Mendenhall: We stayed in Kansas.
Sheri Dew: Well, what a great launch.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah. And in Kansas, this hotel we stay in, they had just shampooed the carpets; they’re still wet.
Holly Mendenhall: They were soaking.
Bronco Mendenhall: Soaking wet. And we’re walking. And so, with that baseline, like, for a honeymoon, everything was going to be up from there.
Sheri Dew: Things have only gotten better.
Bronco Mendenhall: Exactly. But anyway, at that time, we — I don’t know, I promised Holly we would have a place in Montana at some point. And so now, after 32 years of coaching, 26 years of marriage, we now have a permanent place in Montana.
Sheri Dew: You’ve made good on it. We, again, loved seeing your ranch, your animals, horses, beautiful horses. And I know that horses have played a role in actually your football coaching, especially when you were a coach at the University of Virginia. Talk to us about how you used your ranch — and you used your ranch, really, there a lot of ways, for your assistant coaches and their families and so forth, but also for your recruits and your players. Will you just talk to us about how you used that ranch, starting with let’s talk about the horses and the role they played.
Bronco Mendenhall: Sure. From the horse perspective, like, in the world of college athletics, you’re looking to be distinct and different. You can compete on differentiation, you can compete by being different in some way. And there’s so many things that are similar. But the University of Virginia was different in that it was an amazing academic institution. The average student that attends has a 4.3 GPA; the history of the tradition, Thomas Jefferson. But football had struggled. And here comes a coach from the West with an entire coaching staff from the West, almost all members of one faith. And we were trying to consider how best to distinguish ourselves.
Along the way, though, what we found is the horses ended up being fantastic in helping us assess and select and determine what people to bring. And over time, we realized that if I brought out players two at a time and gave them riding lessons in my arena — family on one side of the fence, players on the other, just me and them; and most of them had never seen a horse, let alone ridden one — but I could see how they approach doing something new. I could see the family dynamic as they somewhat huddle before their son, and some would just say, “Well, there you go.” And I could get a real clear idea of what the family dynamic looked like, how a young person would take on a new challenge. And then, if they would listen, if they would learn and if they would engage; if they would help their teammate or potential teammate who was riding.
So, in the arena for maybe a half hour, another half hour around the 30 acres, and by the end of that hour, I had a great idea if that was someone I wanted to be with every single day, and I wasn’t going to bring them if it wasn’t. And so, the transparency of watching the subtle things that players did. And when they would step off, there’d be some that would lead the horse to me, and “What can I do?” and “Can I brush him down?” and “Does he like to be scratched or padded?” And others would just drop the reins, and they were done.
Holly Mendenhall: There were some kids that really didn’t want to get on. They were like, “I’m not getting on.” And it was like, “Well, then you’re not coming.” They really needed to, you know, it was outside of their comfort zone.
Sheri Dew: They needed to try.
Holly Mendenhall: Yeah.
Bronco Mendenhall: And be willing to do hard things. And college football is hard. Life is hard. New things are a challenge. And a lot of folks, especially starting in about junior high, they like to watch from the sidelines because they’re afraid of what other people will think or say. I’m not OK with that way to live. And so, if they weren’t willing to engage in a new thing, then that wasn’t OK, and they weren’t aligned with the direction. And anyway, the success that we had at Virginia had a lot to do with the people. The horses helped us select the people.
Sheri Dew: And so, I’m assuming that from the time you arrived there through the six seasons that you were there — we should pause here to say that I think you were bowl eligible five of the six, which is the first time it had happened at UVA for —
Bronco Mendenhall: Twenty-two years.
Sheri Dew: Twenty-two years. So clearly, major progress was made. But you’re saying that the horses really did affect the nature of the individuals that you brought into the program? Is that a fair statement?
Holly Mendenhall: And it was unique. I don’t know any other programs in the country where there’s a true, legit horseman that knows horses that could do that. And so, it was a very unique type of — you know, everyone at recruiting, they’re all trying to use something special to get you in and, you know, something to make you remember their place. That was very unique. It was so authentic, because it was just Bronco, you know; he’s just, he’s a cowboy. And so, it worked.
Bronco Mendenhall: So that was the gift that they were given, is, here is a family coming, trying to discern where they’re going to go to school for five years, and is this a good fit for them. And they were getting to see the head coach completely all-curtains-drawn-back mode. And so they got to assess, “Am I the right fit for them?” because they were seeing me in the light where I was most comfortable, how I grew up, and they could say, is that someone they wanted to be with for the next five years.
And so much in recruiting is pretend. So much of the messaging is tailored toward first impression and best impression. And then when you get here, it will kind of be something else. We wanted just the opposite: “This is who we are, this is how we live, this is really everything that this program is going to be about. See it and then self-select.” And it was just a way better way and a much more honest way as an entry point for such a significant decision.
Sheri Dew: You have gone to extraordinary lengths at the University of Virginia — I think also at BYU — to give your coaches and their families a little bit more time, a little bit more leeway than typically those that are coaching Division I football, certainly P-5 football, get. And I know you used your ranch to a certain degree in that. Talk to us about your philosophy about that, and then also, Holly, what that meant to be having so many repeated visitors to your home as part of the whole program, because you became integral to that whole effort, really, when you think about opening up your home to recruits, to families, to players, to coaches and their families.
Holly Mendenhall: Our farm was really just such a nice place for that. I mean, we added a pool, we added a pool house, the flow was very nice. And so we would have swim days, and I would open it up to the coaches’ families and say, “Today’s a swim day. “You can come anywhere from 10 to 3. Just have at it,” you know. And sometimes I wouldn’t go out, you know, if I had things going on, or I just, you know, but I always wanted them to feel welcome. It really, truly was like a family. They’re amazing to us, and we love them, love their children.
And there was a lot of recruiting events happen, but there was a lot of times I just stayed inside. You know, I’m not always needed in some of those situations, but I was always there, and I would help to make sure things were clean, set up; you know, they would usually be catered, and that kind of thing. So I was always overseeing some of those things. But I, you know, sometimes I could just — it was separate; our house was a little separate. And I designed it that way. It was nice. I could still have our privacy without feeling like I had to always be out there. Because it was a lot of people there, and sometimes it was kind of hard.
Bronco Mendenhall: Holly’s an amazing architect of hospitality. And so, that doesn’t mean that she had to be the epicenter or the center of attention —
Holly Mendenhall: All the time.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah. And so, the pool was designed with a sun shelf for the little toddlers and moms, and a gradient slope for different ages. And we had a fishing pond, and one of our coaches every Thursday would come to fish. But this idea of if our values really are that families are eternal, and that’s most important with our faith, then we tried hard to make sure that was reflected in our work schedule, regardless of time of year. And sometimes, this idea that in season is a sacred thing, and it’s not normal life, nor could it ever be. We wanted to get as close as possible to normal life without compromising result; actually, with enhancing the result.
And as a result, 17 to 24 hours less per week is what’s been documented of what our schedule would look like, and some would say, “Well, you would have won more if you worked more.” I think we won as much as we did because of how fresh, vibrant and renewed we were while living our values.
Holly Mendenhall: And that flowed over to the players. Those family values flowed over and were wonderful examples to the players, experienced a lot of things with the coachs’ families that they had never really experienced before.
Sheri Dew: Say more about that. Give us an example of what you mean by that.
Holly Mendenhall: A lot of our coaches have the players over all the time; they would go to dance recitals, piano recitals, you know, they’re supporting baptisms; a lot of the players were different faiths than our faith.
Bronco Mendenhall: Little League games.
Holly Mendenhall: And just extended family, really. Just really — and a lot of the coaches became father figures to a lot of these young men that didn’t have that. And really personal relationships formed that were really like family. You know, some of those kids, they would have Sunday-night dinners, and players were welcome in their home every Sunday. Obviously, a lot of coaching families in the country have players over for certain times a year during the season, or whatever, but these really extended it year-round. It became a year-round thing, where it was just part of the — they just supported each other in all different kinds of auxiliary events and things, and it was just really fun to see that. Kind of unique.
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s amazing to see one of our coach’s little kids have a birthday party, and the most attendees are players, a position group of players. So, there’s some friends, little kid’s friends there. But here’s an entire position group of players.
Holly Mendenhall: And enjoying it. The players are enjoying it. That’s the thing, is they’re not there because they feel like they have to be or they’re not going to play in the game. They’re smiling and engaged.
Sheri Dew: So, they wanted to be around their coaches.
Bronco Mendenhall: They did, which is crazy. In their free time.
Holly Mendenhall: Yeah, that’s not normal, right?
Bronco Mendenhall: No, not in their free time, when they have other stuff, and they want to be at their coach’s house, or they want to be with their coach fishing at the pond, or they want to be riding at our place.
Holly Mendenhall: We always opened our home up as well to players. Sometimes I think they maybe felt a little uncomfortable because Bronco’s the head guy, so maybe, you know, but there would be some that were brazen and weren’t afraid. And they’d come and just say, “Can I come fish?” And we were always like, “Yeah, come on over. Come fish.” And they’d stop and visit. Some would just pull up and kind of sneak down and fish and then leave, you know. So, we always wanted them to feel welcome, that they could always come, but that was their choice.
Bronco Mendenhall: And there’s a healthy relationship from respect for the head coach position but also sincerity and being warm and receptive. And we worked as hard as we could.
Holly Mendenhall: That’s a delicate balance, I think.
Bronco Mendenhall: As best as we could to travel that road. Our assistant coaches, with boots on the ground, I think did such a nice job of connecting at a depth and level that allowed me to be connected but also be in the space I needed to, to make some of the decisions that the leader has to make, which are hard.
Sheri Dew: I have a nephew who served a mission in Richmond, Virginia —
Holly Mendenhall: Spencer.
Bronco Mendenhall: We love Spencer.
Sheri Dew: And ended up, I think, being in your home more than once. And I’ve heard him say multiple times that your kids were amazing missionaries while you were in Virginia and that you, coaching staff and wives, were amazing missionaries. How did you handle that so that your players and others didn’t feel the pressure of proselytizing? And yet, missionary work was going on, whether it resulted in baptisms or just nice understanding about the Church. Whatever it resulted in, how did you manage all of that?
Holly Mendenhall: I think it’s living by example. I don’t think you have to be always knocking on doors. I think you live and you teach by example. And we all kind of ended up in the same — the bulk of us were in the same ward, which could have been sketchy. And it worked out great. But I think that the community, there’s a lot of very spiritual people there. They weren’t of our faith, but I don’t think we were — we didn’t swoop in and try and change people’s faiths, you know. We embraced them, and we educated them. There was a lot of, just, not misinformation, but maybe just unknowing. The ward is very strong there. Anyway, there’s a lot of university professors, a lot of grad students come and go to school there. It was a strong ward anyway, but I think we just integrated and tried to live, kind of live by example.
Bronco Mendenhall: So, the success of the program and the growth of the program generated intrigue, not only to “Wait, what’s happening?” but “Why is it happening?” Then, it’s “Who is this happening with?” and “Who’s the leader?” and “Who are these coaches?” and “Who are these families?” And then this discernment of, “Wait, they’re all of the same faith,” and “What is that?” And so, responding to questions that were generated through the visibility and the success was the most powerful way. And the most fun. It was great.
Holly Mendenhall: Yeah. I’m sure the staff in the football department was a little overwhelmed when we first got there with all the kids we had. We had a lot of kids, and there would be Monday-night dinners. And I’m sure, I think a lot of them were like, “Man, how the heck is this going to work?” you know. But then I think they got to where they really embraced it. And when it came to be Halloween, that office staff would go gangbusters. All their office rooms were decorated, and everybody, all the office staff, got in costumes, and all these kids would come swimming through there. And it was just everybody’s favorite thing. It was really a unique blending of, really, differences, you know, but everybody got along really well.
Bronco Mendenhall: The demands of the program were so high, and the programs that I run are really challenging. And then there’s little kids riding bikes around the offices Monday nights and families, you know, out on the grass, having a picnic, and together on Sundays and off-site every Thursday at our house. And this idea of demand and expectation and faith and all the things that are most important, which outcome is part of that, with camaraderie, is uncommon.
Holly Mendenhall: And I think one of the things that Bronco has done really well is this mindset of “You have to be the first to the office and the last to leave.” You know, sometimes if you really look at it, you’re not productive if you’re that, and Bronco has been masterful at figuring out how to condense that and be wickedly productive and then have downtime.
And I think that he’s done a really nice job of not sacrificing results on the field, not sacrificing the level of football. It’s just “When and how can we be the most productive?” and then “Let’s be done.” It’s not a competition of who can sleep in their office over the night, or “I was in my office for 20 hours,” you know. And you know, Bronco did that when he was a young coach. His office was in the football office. His filing cabinet was his drawer, his dresser for all of his clothes. But I think that that’s evolved. And so, I think he’s done a masterful job at figuring out how to get the most out of people and be efficient and still let them do something else.
Sheri Dew: OK, let’s go back to BYU. Your first head coaching job, BYU, 2005 to 2015 — am I right? Have I got those dates, correct? I think I do. You had 99 wins, including six bowl-game appearances. At the end of that decade at BYU, you inherited a program that was struggling, just like you did at the University of Virginia, that would be subsequent to BYU. But what did you know at the end of 10 years at BYU that you didn’t know at the beginning? First time as a head coach, and unique school, owned by of course The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but tell us what you learned during that decade there.
Holly Mendenhall: In all honesty, I would say it’s an amazing institution, but it’s not a perfect institution. Nothing is perfect. We loved our time at BYU, you know; it was a learning curve. When I married Bronco, I thought he wanted to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL. You know, a lot of these guys are climbing the ladder; I’m not sure he ever aspired to be a head coach. When he took the job with Gary Crowton at BYU, I was just excited to get closer to Montana, because that took my drive down from two days to eight hours. And I’m like, “Let’s do it. Let’s go.” That was my thinking. I wasn’t even thinking head coaching, any of that, you know. So, when he became head coach, I think it was a learning curve for both of us. It was just like, “Wow, what is this all about?” you know?
Bronco Mendenhall: One of the biggest challenges of beginning is that I’d never been a head coach before. And that’s —
Sheri Dew: It’s a leap, right?
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah, being a CEO. And what I learned is if you weren’t really clearly certain on the principles you were going to lead by, others would define that for you. And the number of people that would come into my office, I don’t remember any that didn’t have an agenda of their own, a timeframe of their own and an outcome that they would have preferred. They weren’t just coming in to truly have a dialogue about finding the best solution. They wanted their solution in their timeframe that would benefit them.
Holly Mendenhall: Which is kind of human nature sometimes.
Bronco Mendenhall: I think so. So I learned that, but along the way, and because of the institution, right — so, Brigham Young University is the only institution that’s owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that plays football. There’s only one on planet earth. And I was the head coach of that place. And as part of the process to be selected, that’s a general authority interview. In my case, President Eyring. And my interview question from him was to share my testimony. Like, that was qualifying me to be the football coach. And I was thinking at the time, “Where else does that?”
It was clear to me in my tenure what I believe was supposed to happen was complete alignment with our faith through football, and that wasn’t widely popular by many, and others thought it was great. Up to 85% of our team were returned missionaries. I thought that football was so visible. And one time, the missionaries, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were both ranked ahead of us, and I was like, “I want to be No. 1.” I wanted the football program to be the most impactful, maybe, missionary tool for the Church. And so, I don’t think many coaches think about that. In terms of what I learned: how to do that.
And wow, did I make a lot of mistakes, sometimes overbearing and maybe too blunt, sometimes not enough, and trying to find the right balance to share with the world a message of faith and substance through exceptional outcomes in the world of college football, doing all of that, it came through. And I’m not sure I ever mastered it, but that was the intent. But it came with experience.
Sheri Dew: And would that have been part of the reason that, for example, you did firesides or devotionals in conjunction, when you were doing away games and things like that?
Bronco Mendenhall: In my first year, I had a feeling that that was supposed to happen and kind of held it off to the side; “We have enough going on, and I don’t know how to fit a fireside in.” And at one point, I talked to our football operations director — we were going to San Diego State to play — and I said, “Let’s see if we can do a fireside down there.” And basically, the response from the local leaders was, “Nobody will come, it’ll be Friday night, and there’s not enough lead time.” And my mistake was I took no for an answer. And we lost the game. That doesn’t mean that was why, but we lost the game, and things started pretty rough.
The next week, in Albuquerque, my approach was, “You find us a building, and we’re having one.” Thirteen people showed up besides the team. But I knew and I was at peace with “This was something I could do to align the program and our faith with football.” It ended up being my favorite part of my entire experience at BYU, and on the road games, thousands and thousands of people would come. It wasn’t the number; it was the desire and this intrigue of “Wait, this is football, and the night before, this is faith, and this is really important.” Faith is important, and that message to the people that were coming was the message that I think needed to be expressed.
And then when we would win, and we won a lot, in a way, in a worldly way, that drove home the credibility of the message. And at home games, really the Utah County community wasn’t as interested in coming to the firesides, so we started going to the prison. And I didn’t know if we could feel the Spirit in the prison. I didn’t know what that was going to be like. And, man, we walked in the first time and heard singing, and we were having to stay three feet from the walls, and there’s painted lines, and we’re going through metal detectors, and we hear this beautiful music as we walk in. And these men are in jumpsuits; they were white, but with numbers here. And I won’t ever forget that feeling. And my team, I watched them, and they were just captivated by motivated, humble and driven learners who were so thankful they got a chance to receive a message.
And I was contrasting that to maybe what the world thought of the firesides before the game in different places. And I felt like what we were doing added value. And our boys, in a letter that I’ve gotten from our missionaries, they said, “We always felt like we were part of something special.” And that was by being at the firesides. They felt like they were part of something that was special. I think it helped shape their testimony. What better reason to have a football team?
Now, winning championships, and especially at BYU, yeah, you’d better; but that doesn’t mean that has to be at the expense of the other. And I wanted both. And so what I learned is how best for us to do both. And it wasn’t perfect. But wow, was it — it was the essence of our experience there and added meaning that couldn’t have happened without doing both. And also knowing that when you try to do both like that, it makes you a target. And people have plenty to say and write.
Sheri Dew: I’m sure on both sides of the issue.
Bronco Mendenhall: Exactly. And that was a unique challenge.
Sheri Dew: To your point about wanting BYU to be a crown jewel for the Church, I’ll never forget walking through the VIP tent the week after Tanner Mangum threw that pass to Mitch Matthews at Nebraska. They’re playing that on ESPN. So, it’s halftime, they’re playing this thing, and then they’re showing a clip of Tanner Mangum as a missionary on the backroads of a little village in Chile, and going on and on about, “These fine young men, and they go out and serve, and they do whatever” — and I thought, “There is nothing else that would garner this kind of positive attention for missionary work.” It’s the ESPN guys that were going on and on. I’m wondering what else you saw about what these football players in the football program did that actually reflected beautifully upon not only BYU but its owner, the Church.
Holly Mendenhall: I think one of the things that we started was “Thursday’s Heroes.” That was the program that was designed to, you know, have heroes every Thursday. And that was really impactful to me, to see how the players got involved with that. And they did that at Virginia as well. I think Virginia almost took it a couple notches more than what BYU did. But that was really impactful. And a year, maybe a year and a half ago, we were in the Layton or Ogden area, going to that touring tabernacle. And here we are waiting to go through the tabernacle, and here’s a Thursday’s Hero from 10-15 years ago that totally recognized Bronco. That’s a very impactful program, and to watch the players serve and kind of get outside of themselves, you know.
Football is pretty entitled; these kids are coddled from the time they can — first grade, doing tackle football, they’re kind of the “it” people. And it was really good to get them in service. And so much of our faith is around service; serving other people, getting outside of yourself. And that’s where you can see a lot of growth. And that was really fun.
Bronco Mendenhall: The service part, I think, I’ll piggyback on. Recently, we were at a horse sale way out in Oregon, a small community, and Holly and I were doing a fireside after the horse sale, from the auction ring.
Holly Mendenhall: In the dirt. We’re in the sawdust of the dirt.
Bronco Mendenhall: But during the horse sale, I hear my name, and a former player of mine from BYU, he’s branch president out there in this community. Public boarding schools is how they do it with these ranches, so these kids — their families drive them in Sunday evenings, and they stay in a boarding house Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, the families come and pick them up after school on Friday to go back and work the ranches, public school. And this former player of mine was the branch president. They have 100% young adult and youth activity in their branch. And he’s out there. There’s nothing around other than agriculture and making a difference. The service-oriented nature of the kids at BYU, and again, up to 85% at the height, and wow did I want them to serve missions, knowing the difference it could make and realizing that for those two years, football can wait. What they’re going to do out there will be more profound, more lasting and more eternal.
But on the sign at BYU, it says “Enter To Learn; Go Forth To Serve.” So this idea of serving Thursday’s Heroes and the other initiatives that we had while we were there, if that didn’t last afterwards, what did we really accomplish? And so, to hear the stories — and Holly’s done a really nice job staying in touch as well — but seeing who these kids became, or what they continued after in the service orientation when their football eligibility was done, there’s a reason to play college football, right? Without that, it’s just entertainment. And that’s not enough. And at BYU, it has to be more than that. Faith has to be right in the middle of it.
The school is owned and operated by the Church, right? And service is core to our belief, and that has to be woven in. And if those things don’t last, right — if the faith doesn’t last, if the service doesn’t last — what are we doing? And to me, football had to be a way to drive those messages home while winning championships. And that’s a lot. We were lucky.
Holly Mendenhall: And even at Virginia, where it wasn’t a faith-based institution, you could see the service in these young people come in, and just getting them outside of their little bubble, you know, to serve others. And Virginia kind of took it up a notch and would include celebrities that would do cameos for the Thursday’s Hero, and the players would dress in costumes. They just, yeah, they loved it. So, it didn’t always have to be faith-based, you know.
Bronco Mendenhall: And the youth hospitals every Friday, and so, but developing young people is developing young people, right? And core principles still apply regardless of institution. BYU was faith-centered. UVA was educationally focused. But still, here’s service, right? And here are elements that cross over, that last and sustain and build society. We just happen to be doing it as a football team.
Sheri Dew: So, let’s build on that. You’ve said before that you don’t know any better way to build young men than through college football. What have you learned about that at both these schools and elsewhere where you’ve coached as well, but especially in your head coaching role at BYU and then UVA?
Bronco Mendenhall: I think the easy answer to that is the scope and scale and attention that college football receives. It’s so wildly popular, and it’s so visible, and the following is so vast and rapid, and people really care about that. And so, with all that in place —
Sheri Dew: Sometimes we care too much.
Bronco Mendenhall: Right; it’s possible, and it’s really interesting for a head coach to be saying to build in other things other than caring more. And I care a lot as well, and no one likes to win more than I do, or as much. However, that and that alone isn’t enough. And if that’s all that happens, I don’t think that the true development or the comprehensive development happens at formative stages of a life, where it’s so easy to be migrated and your identity as a coach or player to only be defined by football.
And it’s cliche, but when football ends, then what? And we’ve talked last evening — I was asked one time, “Who are you without your job, without your title, without your money?” So, if title is “football player,” who are you then? If it’s “football coach,” and that’s taken away, who are you then? I was trying to be ahead of that. We were trying to be ahead of that in helping these kids determine who they were in addition to football coach, football player. “OK” — we would say “and” — “OK, you’re a football player. And what else?” And if there wasn’t much else, then that wasn’t OK. And we worked hard to address that.
Holly Mendenhall: One of the things Bronco did in Virginia is he had a bookshelf, and he has all different kinds of books in there. And the players would come to him and say, “Coach, what about this?” And he would say, “Well, I’ve got a book for you.” So they would take that book, go read it and come back. And then he would teach them, you know, “Here, try this next one.” You know, it didn’t just end on the field; it was teaching them how to be, you know, how to develop and become better human beings.
And with all this craziness with NIL, these kids are getting all this money, who’s teaching them to manage the money? What happens when football’s over? Do they have any left? There’s so much more than just what’s on the field, with mentoring and leadership and helping them just really become contributing citizens in society, you know.
Bronco Mendenhall: And self-reliance. So, the idea with the books — and I’m passionate about reading — but they would come with a question. And I would ask them, “Well, how sincerely do you want the answer?” And if they said, “Really, sincerely,” or “Yeah, I want to know,” then the section of my bookshelf, we’d walk over, and I’d kind of pull out three or four, and I said, “Pick any of these, and our next conversation will be after you’ve read it.” And if they didn’t come back, or if they came back and not reading it, there wasn’t another conversation. So they had to invest in the discovery process, which is what we all do, as grownups; we research, and we learn, and we’re self-reliant, and we try to find answers, and we have someone guide us and help us, but they don’t just tell us, right?
I think a wise mentor instructs and asks for effort to help discern, and that ends up being passed on to companies, to families, to communities, to charitable organizations, to whatever role they have. Then football starts to be lasting, impactful, meaningful, in addition to the championships and the confetti. I was at an event one time, and one of the coaches had just won a national championship, and he was holding up the crystal ball, and confetti was coming down. And he was relating this to me. He was holding up the crystal ball, and confetti coming down, and ESPN, and you see it all. And he was thinking at that time, “There has to be more than this.” This is while it’s happening. And I’ve experienced something similar.
And so, these other things we’re talking about, not to diminish the outcome, but in addition to the outcome, there has to be the development of these other things for it really to be impactful to the level that college football can be, or at least for the way that we want to lead. And so, back to this original question of — we haven’t found anything as impactful with developing young men than college football. It’s because of the interest, the scope and scale and then intentionality to add the other parts to it. We haven’t found anything else that’s similar or as impactful. And that’s yet — maybe there is; we just haven’t found it.
Sheri Dew: Going back to your bookshelf, are there —
Holly Mendenhall: I showed you the boxes upstairs. I showed her all these boxes. I said, “This is all Bronco’s library right here.”
Sheri Dew: Are there several books that have helped shape your style as a leader? “Well, you’ve got to read this one. You’ve got to read this one. You’ve got to read this one”?
Holly Mendenhall: Every month, “Can you order me these two books? These are my two books, so I’ve got them coming.”
Bronco Mendenhall: It changes. There was what I called the “top shelf” in my office.
Sheri Dew: I’ve got a top shelf too.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah. And so sometimes one would come off the top shelf, and another would replace it. But kind of the same ones stayed. And they were pretty wide-ranging, but one of them was a book called “Wooden on Leadership,” and this was coaching-specific and leadership-specific. But John Wooden was —
Sheri Dew: Johnny Wooden, UCLA basketball.
Bronco Mendenhall: Exactly. English teacher and really well read, and I think a fascinating and great teacher, also super successful.
Sheri Dew: Didn’t hurt that he had Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That didn’t hurt him.
Bronco Mendenhall: Which is where recruiting fits in and how NIL fits in and what the extent folks will go to to get players now. The point is you find foundational books along the way that make sense within a specific genre or realm. And in terms of leadership and teaching, that was foundational, and so I had others. Businesswise, there’s a book called “Good to Great.”
Sheri Dew: Yeah, “Good to Great” for me.
Bronco Mendenhall: It was awesome. And I really liked that.
Sheri Dew: Level 5 leaders.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah. Which is a unique combination of humility and will. And so many people think it’s the charismatic, and not so much. But they are unrelenting in their effort, but certainly humble and willing to learn and keep going. And so, there was four or five of those books; those just happen to be two. And rarely would the players get to start with those. Sometimes, but their questions usually were more topic-specific.
Sheri Dew: Foundational, maybe. When you stepped away from your head coaching role at the University of Virginia, it surprised a lot of people. I remember — I was telling you — I literally remember where I was when I heard it. I thought, “Whoa. really?”
Holly Mendenhall: It surprised me too.
Sheri Dew: So, can you talk to us about why you made that decision?
Bronco Mendenhall: I can try. I’ve had a hard time articulating it when I’m asked, but it was clear to me change was needed. And not only change —
Sheri Dew: Is that a mental procedure or a spiritual impression? Or is that too personal a question?
Bronco Mendenhall: No, I think it was both. So, I think there was a practical component, and I think there was a spiritual component. And I had been at Virginia for six years. And wow, was it —
Sheri Dew: Huge progress.
Bronco Mendenhall: It was transformative, the impact that the players and the community had on me, and hopefully reciprocated. And I love unbroken growth. And I love opportunities. And I was craving an increased commitment from the institution toward football and allow it to keep growing.
I was also seeing internally a restlessness of “Who am I really, in addition to football?” And I’ve been preaching that, and I’ve been espousing that, but who am I really? And I thought I knew. But now, after a year, I’m realizing that I didn’t have as clear an idea. And I’m so thankful that I’ve had some time to solidify that term “coach.” Wow, does that take up a lot of my identity, what I’ve realized, and what else is left, there was some but not as much as I wanted of other things, which is what I’ve been telling the players. And I have all these amazing coaches, most who had played for me and were graduate assistants and were position coaches and coordinators, and they’d been with me some 13 years, some 17 years. And, wow, there was another phase for each of them to learn and grow and progress as well. Man, I saw increased opportunities for them in ways that maybe I couldn’t provide.
And so all of that, in addition to, yeah, developing and having a place in Montana, where I promised Holly we would, and kind of pausing to consider, “What does Chapter 2 of our lives really look like?” And that clarity has come with some distance, as to now, what we really do. And we are football coaches. And I say, “we,” because as you’ve seen the way we live, Holly does everything else, while I’m trying to lead these young people. And that confirmation has come with distance and clarity, where the landscape of college football is changing, and if you’re going to do this job, you’d better be really clear of, “Is it what you want to do?” and “How come?” And so we’re much more clear. I am much more clear: yes, that we want to, and how come.
Holly Mendenhall: You know, sometimes when you’re in a storm, you can’t really see out of the storm; you’re just trying to survive the storm. And I think sometimes with football, it’s so encompassing. And so, this last year and a half has kind of allowed Bronco to step back, and really, he’s talked to a ton of, you know, coaches, and just step back and really look at the sport differently. So, if we have the opportunity to go back, it’ll be fun to see how he does things differently after having a little bit of time away to sort of see what the landscape is like. You’re so busy coaching, you don’t have time. You know, it’s recruiting, it’s the season, it’s, you know — you’re going, you know, 500 miles an hour every single day. So, having this year and a half of a pause has been really unique. I think it really has been very helpful.
Bronco Mendenhall: I would say it’s been essential. And one of the things, and I’ve kind of likened it to being dead without being dead and being at your funeral and, like, what people say. I’m not really concerned what the outside world has said; the number of text messages and phone calls that I’ve received, I’ve just kind of paid attention to where they came from and tried to gauge impact if possible. If this was a summit, you know, and if it was Everest, it’s not base camp, and it’s not the halfway point. It’s kind of the three-quarter, and you can see the summit, and you want to make an assault to get to the top.
You’re kind of there looking at all the supplies, and this past year and a half, we’ve been kind of checking our ropes and checking our packs, and “Do we got enough?” and “Here comes the last push.” The feedback that’s come back is — almost every response has been from former players. And if you’re saying, “Where else have messages come?” Not many other sources. The fans, not so much. Other administrators, not so much. Boosters, supporters of either program, not so much. There are exceptions. Almost all the messages are from the players.
Sheri Dew: And what do they say?
Holly Mendenhall: They’re grateful. They’re grateful for what he taught them outside of the field, not only on the field, but they’re grateful for —
Bronco Mendenhall: Of the hundreds — I haven’t kept track — one message has mentioned a game or a score. Every other message has mentioned moments. “Hey, Coach, do you remember when?” Non-game, non-practice moments, moments of relationships. And so, what I’ve taken away as I’ve contemplated the last year and a half, and maybe this is what our listeners or viewers or anyone that’s watching this — relationships are lasting, and they’re worth investing in. And the titles, they feel good, and it’s great to pursue, and necessary, in some cases, right, to stay employed. To say they’re lasting, not from what I’ve seen. The relationships trump everything.
And the gratitude of someone that really committed to a relationship, that really tries to help someone else that knows you’re in it for them, man; that has been the overwhelming message that I’ve received. And I wouldn’t have guessed that would be the message. I would have guessed the message is, “Hey, do you remember 1999, we played so and so, and we beat them, and remember that play?” None of that. “Hey, Coach, do you remember, you know, my dad was struggling, and I came to your office,” or “Coach, do you remember when you slipped on the ice, and I saw you, and your clipboard went flying, and we laughed?”
You know, they are moments. They’re remembering moments. And I’m kind of thinking, like, in life, maybe our life will be like the ESPN plays of the day, you know. It won’t be this giant thing; there’ll be, like, moments, and then we’ll look at the moments, who were they with? And I crave the moments with, is what the past year and a half, moments with young people, under the architecture of football, to make a difference. And I wouldn’t have known that as clearly if we just kind of let it keep rolling. And so, lots of contributing factors determined my decision. The takeaway, though, has been how important caring for other people is. And I wouldn’t have guessed that would have been the main takeaway, but that’s what it’s been.
Sheri Dew: Holly, you have had the role that I think every head coach’s wife has. How have you protected your kids from all kinds of reactions about their dad? When the team wins, there are certain reactions, and when the team loses, there are other kinds of reactions, and yet you were raising three boys, and you have now three amazing sons. They’ve all served missions, the third of which is still on his mission. What did you do to insulate them from the feedback about their dad?
Holly Mendenhall: I think it was really important when they were little to let them know how great their dad was and that football was his job; it didn’t define everything about him. It was part of him, but it wasn’t everything. And so, there are a lot of families where their kids are just all in; coaching families, the kids are all in, they know everything. We were very open with the kids, very honest.
But if there were bad articles written about Bronco — when Bronco became head coach, we basically decided we were stopping reading media, you know, because one minute they would write something great, the next minute, they were writing something terrible. But we still wanted, when those things came out, we talked about it; it was very open, and we would say, “Well, you know your dad’s not like that, right? Because you know at home, this is the way he is.” So, I think there was open dialogue. I think there was creating our home to be a sanctuary, a place where they felt comfortable talking about anything and bringing anything to us.
And also letting them realize that, you know, football just wasn’t everything and that their lives were important, their interests were just as important as his, and if they had activities to go to, those were a big deal. You know, nothing got put under the rug for football. You know, football — yes, it was his paycheck, and yes, we know who brings in that paycheck, but it just, yeah, there was just more to life than football.
And I really wanted them to serve. We used to always say to them, “You’ve been given a lot.” That was the original part of the reason we started Thursday’s Heroes, because I said to Bronco, “We’ve been given a lot, and we need to give back. We need to teach our children that they have been given a lot, and with that comes a responsibility of giving back.” And so, service; you know, getting them outside of themselves. They’ve been given a lot of opportunities. College football has provided our family with some amazing opportunities. You know, the highs are high, and the lows are low. We all know that. But we’ve had some great adventures as a family.
Sheri Dew: You’ve been blessed.
Holly Mendenhall: Yes, definitely. Absolutely. And football has been a great — we’re a football family. But I just think; we have three children, and they’re very different interests. We have one that loves the arts, you know, one that loves sports, one that’s a cowboy. And I was, as I was telling you before, everybody supports everyone else. We all go to the theater, we all go to the rodeo, you know, we all go to the games. So, everyone is important, and everyone’s whatever that is, is just as important, you know. Our oldest son got the lead role when we first moved to Virginia, in Grease. Bronco’s whole, entire football staff came to the opening night. It was building them up and letting them know that their interests are a big deal, too, if that makes sense.
Sheri Dew: Makes great sense. I’ve heard a couple of your sons told us yesterday, one of whom just got off his mission. So he’s fresh from the mission field. And he said, “My mom and dad are the best companionship I know.” And then your other son chimed in and said, “That’s right.” How have you built that companionship?
Holly Mendenhall: Well, it takes work, you know. It takes work, and it takes sacrifice. When we first got married and chose to have children, it would be very easy for me to be socialyting around as a head football coach’s wife, and no disrespect to anybody that does that. It’s just not me. And I said to Bronco, “We chose to have these children. I want to be present with them and be here with them all the time,” because I knew that he would be gone a lot. And so, I think that was initially a choice that I made, was to be a little bit more in the background. A lot of head coaches’ wives are in the office all the time, and, you know, part of that, that’s just not what I wanted. I wanted to be more with our boys. I knew that that time was fleeting with them.
And so, I think it’s been give and take for both of us, you know. We support Bronco as much as we can. And there were times at BYU where he would say, “Man, could you just bring the kids to practice one day?” And I would say, “No, I can’t. It’s 45 minutes away. They’ll fall asleep in the car, and then I’ve got to drag them all the way home, and then they won’t go to bed. So no, we can’t do that,” you know. And he would be so bugged, because other coaches would be over there with their kids playing. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s not going to work for me,” you know.
So, it’s give and take. And he was probably really frustrated with me, you know, a lot of that time, but I think it’s just a partnership, defining, knowing what our roles are. I’ve never felt that he thought he was superior to me. You know, people are always like the, you know, men in the Church and all that. I’ve never felt that. We just have different roles. Bronco is definitely the patriarch of our family. Yeah, it’s just a partnership. We just do different things, and we blend them together.
Bronco Mendenhall: And when we’re bugged with each other, we just consider ourselves normal, you know. It’s just this idea that you’re not ever going to be — come on. And why pretend? Our date, when we were at BYU, Wednesdays, noon to 1:30, Holly would come over to the Payson temple, we’d have a chance to drive there. We did initiatories, drove back. We had an hour and a half to connect. And that was sacred time for us. And she bugged me, and I bugged her on other days in between then, and we’d reconnect, and we’d get it resolved, and we just kept going, which is awesome. That’s how it works; you just keep going.
Holly Mendenhall: No one’s perfect. There’s no perfect people, you know?
Bronco Mendenhall: And we laugh at each other, and we do some dumb things, me especially. And what was really fun, going back to the boys being raised, there was no way that my job was more important than the kids’ activities. We felt strongly about that. And this time of year, when two-a-days would begin, or fall camp would start, and the hours are really long, and the coaches aren’t home, Holly had this idea — which I resisted at first, because I was thinking selfishly — of that would become a cultural time where she would take the kids, and they’d travel abroad, and they’d go on these amazing trips. And so, I’d be doing that thing.
Sheri Dew: You’d be working your guts out, as it were.
Bronco Mendenhall: But I might be home 10 minutes at night and want to see everybody, and that was really hard for me. And then I stepped back, eventually, and saw the bigger picture: “Wait, they’re in the Dolomites. They’re in France. They’re in Italy.” And the kids and Holly in their own team, supporting me and vice versa, was allowing them to grow. And Holly’s autonomy and independence, as well as leadership, was allowing the kids to grow while I was in the most fierce component of the season in developing other people’s kids.
And we realized there was going to have to be times where these go on at the same time. And there’s times where, yeah, one side sacrifices for the other to go on unified. But there’s other times we’re actually going to make up more ground dividing and conquering and then coming back together. And that was a foreign idea to me to start, but it ended up being one of the best things for not only Holly to stay energized in this profession, but for my kids to realize, yeah, they can grow and develop, even when football is going on, and not everything in the world is going to be based on the outcome of that game. And that really helped.
Holly Mendenhall: We always stayed home during the season. We realized the season was stressful for him. He needed our support; you know, if it was going poorly, I wanted him to know we were always there, that we were always going to be there for him. But in other times, that was hard for him to think that we were off, you know, while he was home. But a lot of times, he just wasn’t home. Even though he was there, he wasn’t home. And so I thought, “Well, why are we even here? We could be —” And it was good for the kids, just, you know, growth.
Bronco Mendenhall: It ended up being great. But that’s part of this marital relationship. You define them, and your own norms become — your own way of doing it becomes your own way. It’s not our parents’ way. It’s not our neighbors’ way. It’s our way. And customizing that is what I would encourage people to look at. And there are guidelines, and there are ways to do it that are proven and tried, but there are ways to customize that to a specific union within your faith that makes it truly magical. And it makes it your own. And Holly’s been exceptional at that.
Holly Mendenhall: So, I think that the Church, if you’re really converted to your faith, I think the Church is just who you are. It’s part of who you are, and it overflows in all that you do. And I remember when we first got married, because my family are not all members, and totally inactive; I’m the only one in my family, my immediate family, that has really anything to do with organized religion. It was very hard for me to go to church all day. But as you go along, I think if you’re really living, you’re either all the way in or you’re not, you know; you’re either submerging or you’re tapping your toe in there. And if you’re really a member, I think it just flows in everything that you do: in your service projects, in how you are with your ministering, your job, it just is part of your being. It’s just everything.
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s the same for me. There’s not a decision that I make or that we make that doesn’t start with our beliefs. And our beliefs then guide the principles, and our principles guide our choices, right? Our choices guide our actions, and you pull that thread, it’s back to our beliefs. And it is the foundation of every decision we make, and this idea of “You’re a member of the Church,” and then if you were to say, “and” after, there is no “and.” No, I’m a member of the Church. I work as hard as I can to be a disciple of Christ. I do all I can imperfectly to follow our Savior’s teachings. I do everything I know how to do.
Holly Mendenhall: We’re not just members on Sundays.
Sheri Dew: So, and isn’t it fair to say that’s what’s guided all of your decisions? So, it’s trying to let your coaches have more time with their families. It’s trying to make sure you develop character in these young men. It’s serving, giving them opportunities to serve. It’s doing all the things —
Holly Mendenhall: The core principles of the gospel.
Sheri Dew: The core principles, but then adapting them in the football environment.
Holly Mendenhall: Yeah, and they change. It depends where you live, what the cultural norms are in that area. But it really is still a part of who you are. You just adapt to what is there. But if it’s really part of you and part of your core, it gets blended. It gets blended and just part of it.
Bronco Mendenhall: Well, we know we’re children of God. We know we’re disciples of Christ. We know we’re children of the covenant. That is our identity. And I would hope we would live in a way that others knew that’s who we were. And at Virginia, the first guiding principle was “Family first, last and always.”
Sheri Dew: Which means eternal.
Bronco Mendenhall: Exactly right. And so, the words were different, because I was in a place that there’s a separation of church and state and how things had to be presented. But they were still going to be presented in a way that reflected my beliefs; and so, every conversation with our kids, every conversation, every decision we make. And back to your question of pausing my career at Virginia, I was feeling a little too tilted toward “football is everything.” And it’s not. Is it important? Yes. Are outcomes important? Yes. But things like this? This is the foundational part of why we’re on the planet. And that has to be anchored in a way that clearly is first. And if you’re not careful, your profession can creep into that and maybe feel more important.
And so, it’s just been great. From the very beginning of our testimonies to them growing, which we think they have to keep growing. And the best part of our weeks the past two years have been missionary Monday and Tuesday. One of the boys’ P-days was Monday, and one was Tuesday. And Holly literally, those days, nothing else happens other than her waiting by the phone.
Holly Mendenhall: We scheduled our dinner with you last night around — it was P-day.
Bronco Mendenhall: A 9 o’clock call after and a call before. Those experiences supporting a missionary, learning from our missionaries. What else could they be doing that’s more impactful? Playing football? No. Coaching football? No. It’s the “and.” And so, yeah, modeling that’s been important to us. But every decision is based on our testimony and our beliefs.
Sheri Dew: What’s next for Holly and Bronco Mendenhall?
Holly Mendenhall: Wow, yeah, that’s a loaded question. We don’t know.
Bronco Mendenhall: We’re finishing this home that we’re in as a place where our kids and grandkids can come. We’re finishing the ranch where our kids and our grandkids can come. Those properties will be done intentionally by November. And then, we don’t know, because we don’t know who might want us to return to college football, where they might want us, how they might want us. But that’s who we are.
Holly Mendenhall: We’d love another run.
Bronco Mendenhall: Yeah. And we love the impact. We love the development. We love helping kids through the game of football, but not just football, like championship football. We like winning, but while we’re doing that, we like this other part. And so, that’s become really clear to us. And so, yeah, stay tuned to see if that happens.
Sheri Dew: Thank you. You’ve been so generous and so transparent and so warm. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. There is just so much to learn. I’ve been making mental notes as you’ve gone along: “Oh, there’s an idea.” You’ve said several things that have affected me personally. And I think that’s the case for all of us when we share. We share our journeys and see what we can learn from each other. So thanks for letting us learn from you today.
Holly Mendenhall: We love you, Sheri.
Bronco Mendenhall: It’s our pleasure. I heard one time — Holly is great at this; I’m not as good, but — if you don’t invest time in friends, you won’t have any. So we consider you a friend. And even though it’s been maybe just an annual dinner that’s like one day a year, for those listening or watching.
Sheri Dew: It’s one of my favorite days of the year.
Bronco Mendenhall: And so, it’s not the volume of exposures; just one that’s meaningful and substantiative and consistent can make a difference.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channels or with other news and updates of the Church on TheChurchNews.com.