Monday, September 15, 2008

How one coach is rebuilding a program

After watching the highlights of BYU's 59-0 win over UCLA the other day, I started doing some research on BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall. What I found was this terrific article from the Salt Lake paper. He's a fascinating guy.

I encourage you to read the entire article, but here are some interesting facts about Coach Mendenhall and his coaching style:

Growing up, his father didn't baby him:

"Every morning, the blond-haired boy arose in the predawn darkness to make the half-mile trip out to the barn near his parents' Alpine home. His father always had plenty of strenuous, unglamorous work for him to do.

Among the chores included cleaning manure out of the stalls, feeding the cows and horses and hauling hay. They were big jobs for a small boy who was still in elementary school.

But Paul Mendenhall always had the utmost confidence in his son, Bronco, who accomplished every task with efficiency and meticulousness.

"He's been an unusual young man since he was seven or eight years old," Paul says. "He has always been a very hard worker. I'd ask him to do things a grown man would do. He was extremely dependable. He always did it right. In the dead of winter, in two feet of snow, or in the heat of summer. It didn't matter. He never complained."

By the time he was in the fifth grade, Bronco was driving a pickup truck around the farm to perform various responsibilities — even though he wasn't tall enough to see over the top of the steering wheel.

"He'd say, 'Dad, I can't see,'" Paul recalls. "I'd say, 'C'mon, Bronco! Get going! And he'd take off. I didn't dare tell his mom. I could tell him to do anything, and he'd do it. He'd give shots to the horses. If you do it in the wrong spot, it could kill the horse. After I showed him how to do it, I never worried about it with him. Bronco would have to clean the stall and remove the horse manure. Sometimes he'd get down on his hands and knees and pick up pieces one by one. He wanted it to be perfect. It's a silly, little thing, but that carried on to big things. He's never satisfied with anything less than excellence in everything he does."

Every day after school, Bronco would go home and return to the barn. Once inside, his eyes would gaze up at a white board filled with a list of chores his dad had scrawled on it. He was charged with major responsibilities related to the family business - caring for and training up to 20 horses that were worth a total of $400,000.

"My dad simply just expected it to be done, and there was never the thought of, 'I can't do this, I'm too little, I'm not yet old enough.' It was, just go do it," Bronco says. "He would leave sometimes for a week to 10 days at a time when I was in junior high school and I was responsible for running his share of the operation and going to school. I was just a little kid.

But I never viewed myself like that because my parents didn't. My intention was always that whenever my parents came back, they would be very impressed. That it might look better than when they left. That was instilled early."

Looking back, Mendenhall realizes he has been preparing his entire life for this mantle of leadership. "On-the job training for this position was, I think, happening since I was just a little boy," he says.

He understands the responsibility he has as head coach at BYU:

"If you look at the mission statement that we came up with for the football program, I think we're the flagbearer of the institution," he says. "I'm passionate about my faith and I'm passionate about principles of truth and virtue and character. Those things represent BYU and BYU's football program. We're on the front line, representing all of those things. I intend to carry that flag up high, not on the ground. If I do my job right, this place will be one of the most dominant programs in the country, as it once was."

His first interviews for the head coaching position didn't go well:

"He's a very passionate guy. He didn't look at the big picture in those first interviews," says athletic director Tom Holmoe. "He answered questions as a defensive coordinator, not a head coach. I was confused because he was holding back. He didn't show everything he had. Bronco understands roles. He played the role of the defensive coordinator."

He benefitted from his parents' different personalities:

While [his parents] are complete opposites, Bronco says, he benefited from their contrasting personalities and interests. "It's amazing. My dad is kind of this rough, gruff business-cowboy. My mom is very gracious. She is so strong in etiquette and manners. She's very sophisticated and involved in art and music and opera and symphony and culture."

Between the two, "there weren't many areas in my life where I didn't have real exacting points of reference of how to do it and do it correctly," he says. "Diversity would be a great way to describe the way I was raised."

As a young coach, he saw the impact he could have on the lives of his players:

"One of the great experiences of my life was seeing young men come out of the ghettos of Chicago and Los Angeles and watching them play at New Mexico," [his father] Paul says. "We had parents come up to us and say, 'I don't know how your son has done it, but he's changed the life of our boy.' That's Bronco's goal, to change lives and help them excel. For him, it's not all about winning football games."

Being able to make an impact on young people encouraged Bronco to stick with coaching. "At some point, I had to decide why I was doing this," he says. "The conclusion is, I like to see kids try hard, I like to see them develop. I don't really coach for Saturdays. I coach for the day-to-day of watching them show up and do the best they can. That's what I gain the most satisfaction from. Once I came to that conclusion, I've been at peace with what I'm doing."

On his coaching philosophy:

Mendenhall believes in the warrior culture. As the defensive coordinator, he assigns his players to study various types, from Stripling Warriors in the LDS culture; to Samurai and Bushido Warriors in the Japanese culture; to the Maoris in the New Zealand culture.

Mendenhall became fascinated with warrior cultures because his father served two missions to New Zealand. "What I've learned through studying these cultures is, there's a tradition that passed on from father to son, generation to generation of how they do things. It's a way of excellence and it's a lifestyle that's all-encompassing. They dedicate and devote their entire being to representing their people."

Then, he adds: "Most often, there's a rite of passage that a member of the culture has to pass through to become included in. I really like the idea of investment to become a part of something rather than entitlement."

That explains why he fosters a successful walk-on program at BYU. Last season, several non-scholarship players on the Cougar defense ended up starting or seeing significant playing time. In Mendenhall's program, players are judged by how they perform in practice on a daily basis. Entitlement doesn't exist.

He wants his players to understand the proud history of their school:

Mendenhall has also embraced the Cougars' rich tradition, inviting former star players back to campus to address the team. He expects his current players to understand, and uphold, this legacy.

Former BYU star and NFL Hall-of-Famer Steve Young dropped in one afternoon after practice recently. He is impressed with Mendenhall's approach. "Everyone knows Bronco's a great motivator and he's a fine coach," Young says. "Really, it's about getting wins. The foundation is here, the facilities are here. Recruiting looks like it's going well. Bronco can do the job. Everybody expects significant improvement. He's taken the challenge. He's changed the logo back to the old logo to say, 'I know what the expectations are. Why hide it? We're not going to run from it.' I like that."

Not long ago, Duane Busby, BYU's director of football operations, was rummaging through a pile of items in his office when he found a highlight film from the 1996 season, when the Cougars posted a 14-1 record, won the Cotton Bowl and finished with a No. 5 national ranking. The highlight film was only three or four minutes long, but Busby figured Mendenhall might be interested in seeing it, so he put it on a DVD and placed it on the coach's desk.

"The next day, he took our staff into the team room and called the players in to watch it," Busby says. "He told them, 'I can't get these images out of my mind. This is what we need to be.' Then he showed them the highlights. It struck an emotional chord in him. He has a passion to return BYU to greatness."

On his passion and energy:

Members of Mendenhall's staff say he's working with a sense of urgency, but in a very deliberate, organized fashion. He routinely hands out copies of inspirational books for them to read.

Assistant coaches praise him for his willingness to listen to their ideas and to learn. They say that under his direction, they feel a stronger sense of ownership in the program.

"He's passionate about what he's doing," Busby says. "That passion is evidenced by everything he does. His passion burns brighter than anyone I've been around."

Mendenhall has sought out LaVell Edwards, the Father of BYU Football, the man who built the program and the tradition from practically nothing, to mine nuggets of wisdom and advice. Their first meeting, which was scheduled to last 30 minutes, ended up going for three hours. They've met several times since.

Busby, who was hired by Edwards in 1996, has an analogy for what Mendenhall has been doing in his first few months on the job. "BYU football was a machine, like a giant wheel that rolled along under LaVell," he explains. "It's taken a few bad years to stop the momentum of the wheel. It takes a lot of energy to get it spinning again."

The last couple of years, watching a BYU practice was like watching two different teams, the offense and the defense. They each had different standards, which created friction among the players. Building unity and a common mindset was one of Mendenhall's first priorities.

"We won't have two separate teams, like it's kind of been," says middle linebacker Cameron Jensen. "We'll have that one team that's focused and dedicated to playing and working as hard as it can, which should be BYU football."

Meanwhile, Mendenhall has labored diligently to change attitudes among players who have endured three straight losing seasons. "The most important thing is attitude," Holmoe says. "You can get used to losing."

On his private life:

His three sons have provided a much-needed sense of balance, Holly says, particularly when things don't go well at work. "He's a perfectionist. When things go wrong, it frustrates him. The kids help with that. They're good for him. It helps him remember that it's not the end of the world to lose a football game."

The Mendenhalls spend a lot of their time together outdoors, including activities like swimming, riding bikes and riding horses. Sometimes, on Sundays when the weather is pleasant, Bronco walks with the older boys to church. As they walk, he tells them stories. "These are stories off the top of his head with good morals," Holly says. "He's a creative person. I want him to write children's books. I tell him, 'We could make a million dollars if you were a children's author.'"

While he's comfortable speaking in front of crowds large and small, Bronco is a private person, Holly says, and not one inclined to engage in small talk. "People who know him know he just likes to hang out. We'll go to a restaurant and people try to talk to him. He can be abrupt when people invade his personal space. A lot of people don't relate to Bronco. He's not going to be your best friend."

If Bronco wasn't a football coach, Holly says, he could be good at anything. "He has excellent leadership skills, he's honest, committed, loyal. A good guy who does the right thing," she says. "He's a deep thinker, articulate and eloquent. He's doesn't prepare for talks. He just speaks from his heart. He's very spiritual, very intelligent."

Speaking of that softer side, Holly reveals that her husband is something of a romantic. "He writes me great love letters. He's so creative, very good with words," she says. "For my birthday or anniversary, he'll leave cards in the shower and in the fridge. He's very thoughtful. He's gifted in the way he uses words. I'm amazed all the time."