Bronco Mendenhall aims to build on, strengthen foundation at Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Bronco Mendenhall will move into the house he and his wife, Holly, purchased near the University of Virginia next month, only to quickly move out again as the home undergoes a four-month renovation project.

In the interim, the Mendenhall clan — Bronco, Holly and their three children, all boys — will live in a recreational vehicle parked on the property. “I see all kinds of adventures to be taken in that,” said Mendenhall, who had visited Charlottesville just once, during a rain-delayed road loss in 2013 as the head coach at Brigham Young, before accepting Virginia’s open position in early December.

Add an RV tour of unknown country to Mendenhall’s growing list of activities. This is the coach, just now months into his tenure at Virginia, who 14 years ago learned how to surf on a beach in San Clemente, Calif., and has eyeballed an offseason trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, an unexpected surfing oasis in his new backyard.

Mendenhall will have to fit that trip around his annual motorcycle ride with two of his older brothers, which begins out west and continues to “destinations unknown.”

There are his almost daily bike rides, which during his long and successful stint at BYU would wind through the nearby mountains in search of a steep, lung-busting ascent or descent. There’s his craving for extreme exercise: Mendenhall will participate in the “cougar challenge,” a triathlon-like event that may take up to 12 hours to complete.

And, of course, the latest challenge: leaving BYU, where Mendenhall had crafted a coaching legacy second only to Lavell Edwards in the program’s proud history, and embracing the process of reversing Virginia’s own uneven football past.

“I crave a challenge,” Mendenhall told USA TODAY Sports. “I crave change. I crave growth and progress. And I crave tangible markers that those things are happening. After all that and setting all that foundation and direction, there became a point where it was guardian, custodian of that direction — where it was, I’m not sure now if I’m one supposed to be doing that here.

“My wife and I always talked about it. If we were to remain coaching, it has to be for something other than football. There has to be some unique challenge, some unique standards, some unique blend of both, that would be intriguing. That’s what it was.”

The drive for the next challenge led an energized and invigorated Mendenhall to Virginia, where he inherits a program long on talent — which has never been an issue, despite recent on-field evidence to the contrary — but short on results. The Cavaliers have finished with a losing record in seven of the last eight seasons, sandwiching an eight-win finish in 2011 under Mike London, Mendenhall’s predecessor, with years of unmet expectations.

There is undoubtedly a difficult road ahead, but not one likely to be defined by a multiple-year process: Virginia’s inherent talent level breeds the possibility of a quick turnaround, which fits into Mendenhall’s hopes for reversing the program’s downturn without drastically altering the qualities and assets that make this program unique.

“The perception of the program was that it had this amazing potential that for some reason, which I didn’t know, hadn’t been able to be harnessed consistently,” he said. “What I like to do is build, and what that doesn’t mean is tear down. I like to take what the special things of a given enterprise or a given situation and highlight those things to make it even more vibrant than it was before.”

But there’s room for change. Mendenhall capped his first meeting with the team in December with a message: Whatever is the best shape of your life you’ve ever been, he said, I’d double that — and then I’d train some more. You do get Christmas off, he added, but then it’s back to work.

For now, players are not given any clothing or gear bearing the Virginia logo. It took nearly a month before they were allowed to use the Cavaliers’ weight room, and players still need to earn the right to participate in spring drills, Mendenhall said.

“I expected maybe with five losing seasons, maybe they just wouldn’t try hard enough,” he said. “I was jumping to conclusions. The team is much more willing than I anticipated, much more eager than I expected, more unified than I ever imagined.

“It feels like right now I can’t give them enough challenges. They believe it’s going to work. I believe it’s going to work. And I haven’t had to convince or present that as frequently as I thought I would to capture the hearts and minds.”

This is all part of his process, which was built and honed during his decade-plus at BYU — and it’s all part of Mendenhall’s newest challenge, that of leaving his comfort zone for uncharted territory. This has long defined Mendenhall as an individual; it now defines his first months as the head coach at Virginia.

“I love being pushed or pushing myself, usually in solitude, to places I’ve never been before and then seeing what I can learn about myself there,” he said. “I’m still uncovering all the things that are unique about Virginia. There are hidden challenges that are emerging that are larger than I thought, and there are things that I thought were larger that really are not. The optimism is growing with the realism, and there’s nothing easy about it. I don’t want it to be.”

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