As he explained his thought process through the camera on Thursday evening, Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall didn’t hesitate to deliver the driving force behind his stunning decision to step down.
“I was requested to stay by our athletic director. I was requested to stay by our president,” he said. “It’s my decision only.”
About a half hour before Mendenhall spoke regarding the choice he made, UVa announced that he planned to step down from his post after its bowl game to complete a six-year run at the helm of the Cavaliers. UVa finished 6-6 this fall and will likely on Sunday learn its postseason destination, where Mendenhall will patrol the sideline for the final time as the Hoos’ head man in charge.
“I would love to say there’s been this buildup and a long amount of epiphanies and thought,” Mendenhall said, “but clearly this week there was a sense of clarity to me that I needed to step back from college football and reassess, renew, reframe and reinvent with my wife as a partner, our future and the next chapter of our lives.”
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Mendenhall said his first inclination of the decision to leave his job came to him on Sunday, one day after UVa suffered a heartbreaking loss to rival Virginia Tech. Mendenhall said the Cavaliers’ slumping conclusion to the regular-season campaign, in which they lost four straight, had nothing to do with his choice.
Instead, Mendenhall prioritized family in his reasoning and his desire to spend more time with his wife, Holly, who after 31 years of following Bronco’s steady football routine, will no longer have to.
Mendenhall spent the 11 years prior to his arrival in Charlottesville in the same role at BYU. He was an assistant coach before that with stops at Oregon State, Snow College, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico.
He led BYU to a bowl game in all of his 11 seasons there, and has led UVa to four bowl appearances in his six seasons with the Cavaliers after they hadn’t earned a trip to bowl game in the four years prior to hiring Mendenhall. The only years he did not get UVa to a bowl game was his first season and the 2020 pandemic-impacted campaign.
The Cavaliers won the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division championship in 2019 and reached the Orange Bowl during that season.
“He has done an exceptional job of not just transforming the program, but elevating the expectations for the program,” UVa athletic director Carla Williams said in a press release.
Said Mendenhall, who is 36-38 as Cavs coach, about what he’s proud of: “I’m not sure I can name anything specifically other than that bowl games are commonplace now. And that’s below expectations. We expect to win the Coastal Division. That’s what we expect and so raising expectations, raising benchmarks, providing a new launching pad to really gain momentum now from here, helping UVa imagine and see what’s required to play exceptional football, what kind of consistency that would be required.”
Mendenhall said the relationships he established with his players through their development are most important to him, though.
“Through the higher expectations that have shown achievement on the field,” he said, “the people that are being built along the way is the metric. And I love who my players are and who they’re becoming.”
Mendenhall notified his coaching staff of the decision around 4:45 p.m. this afternoon, he said, before meeting with his team at 5 p.m. to let the entire group know. He noted there were tears, shock and disbelief from his players.
He said his staff was surprised, too. Many of those assistants — OC Robert Anae, DC Nick Howell, co-DC Kelly Poppinga and position coaches Mark Atuaia, Jason Beck, Garrett Tujague and Shane Hunter — followed Mendenhall from the mountains of Utah to the grounds of the Commonwealth’s flagship university.
None of those conversations were easy, according to Mendenhall.
“These are my closest friends,” he said about his coaches, “and this is now their wives and kids who all came. And I’m responsible for all of them. And I love all of them. We were very close before we took this journey. This is now inseparable and galvanized and welded to where you can’t break it. I just did in terms of now the paths become different.”
They’re thrown into the unknown now, too, and whether or not their careers will continue at UVa while the Cavaliers join a long list of schools who have looked or are looking for a new head coach in this chaotic cycle. Earlier Monday in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech introduced former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry as Justin Fuente’s successor. And earlier this week Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma for USC and Brian Kelly bolted from Notre Dame for LSU.
Mendenhall said he’ll be available to Williams to help her vet or advise on candidates if she asks for guidance to determine who’s next in line for the Cavaliers.
“There is now still more here at UVa to go and do and become,” he said, “And Carla wants that. I want that. And I’m certain that whoever is chosen for our program will be exceptional.”