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Bronco Mendenhall moves above .500 for first time as Virginia football coach
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Bronco Mendenhall moves above .500 for first time as Virginia football coach

Virginia Miami Football

Bronco Mendenhall’s record as Virginia head coach is now above .500 for the first time.

With Saturday’s 48-0 win over Duke, Bronco Mendenhall moved his overall record as Virginia’s head football coach to 35-34. For the first time in his tenure, Mendenhall’s record at Virginia is above .500.

He inherited a program in need of a rebuild in 2016. His Cavaliers went 2-10 during his first season.

“When you start 2-10, that’s a pretty big pit,” Mendenhall said. “You need the ice axes and stuff … it’s a big hole.”

Mendenhall mimicked climbing out of a giant hole with ice picks, laughing as he remembered where his program sat in 2016. Since that year, the Cavaliers are 33-24. They’ve finished at .500 or better in each of the last three seasons, and they’re on their way to a .500 or better record this season.

In 2018, Virginia went 8-5. The Cavaliers won the Coastal in 2019, finishing with a 9-5 record. UVa struggled early in 2020, ultimately going 5-5 during the COVID-19 altered season. The group is 5-2 this fall, winning three ACC games in a row after pummeling the Blue Devils on Saturday.

“Since I’ve got here, this has been a winning program,” senior center Olusegun Oluwatimi, who joined the program in 2018, said. “We expect to win.”

The culture in Charlottesville has changed since Mendenhall’s arrival. He’s held his players to high standards on and off the field, and results have steadily arrived.

“I want UVa to be successful,” Mendenhall said. “I want our success on the field. I want scholar athletes. I want service. I want everything. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to win the Coastal and win the ACC either.”

There’s an argument to be made that the Cavaliers are currently the top – or at least the most stable – FBS program in the Commonwealth. Virginia Tech fell 28-7 to Pittsburgh on Saturday, and questions continue to circulate about head coach Justin Fuente’s future with the Hokies. Liberty, which put together a superb 2020 season, lost its second game of the season Saturday — falling as a 32-point favorite against Louisiana-Monroe.

Fans were frustrated with the Cavaliers’ defense after two rocky showings to begin ACC play. The group has improved since. Mendenhall praised his defensive coaches after the team’s win over Duke, saying they’ve worked tirelessly in recent weeks.

“I’m grateful for that, and our intent was to continue to build consistency and capacity, and that’s what we saw today,” Mendenhall said.

UVa’s defense still has room to improve — and games against BYU, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh will be massive tests — but the group looks better than it did in late September.

Much like the defense, UVa’s program still has plenty to prove.

The Cavaliers’ last 10-win season came in 1989. UVa looks poised to qualify for bowl games for years to come, but that’s not the same as contending for ACC titles. The Cavaliers haven’t won an ACC championship since 1995.

After drawing 42,892 fans for the season opener, UVa hasn’t eclipsed 40,000 fans in each of its three most recent home games. There’s understandably more interest surrounding the men’s basketball program, given its national success. Engaging fans on a weekly basis isn’t easy.

Challenges still face the program, but those challenges are different than a few years ago. Instead of trying to learn how to win, the Cavaliers are trying to become one of the top programs in the ACC.

They’re in second place in the Coastal this season, sitting behind Pitt. The chance to win the division, even after beginning ACC play 0-2, is still alive for the Cavaliers.

“Hard things together, will before skill, just all the things that we practice every day, all the work we put in, it’s just coming to life,” wide receiver Billy Kemp IV said.

Mendenhall’s team dug itself out of a pit. The next step is climbing closer to the ACC mountaintop.

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