How Bronco Mendenhall built an unlikely winner at Virginia

Taulapapa muscles into the end zone to give UVa its first lead (0:20)

Wayne Taulapapa takes the handoff and goes up the gut for a seven-yard score. (0:20)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Bronco Mendenhall walked off David A. Harrison III Field last Saturday night somehow containing all the anxiety and relief that comes with a too-close-for-comfort, comeback win.

As he approached a reporter, his signature black unclipped reading glasses swaying ever so slightly around his neck, Virginia's head coach slowly wiped his brow of sweat and settled in with barely a smile across his face.

"It took a lot to get us going today," Mendenhall said. "A lot of times when you're building a program you gotta win in different ways. So it will be valuable learning experience, and I'm glad we played well enough to win."

Virginia opened the night as a four-touchdown favorite over Old Dominion, but had to claw its way back from an early 17-0 hole.

The program left for dead four years ago is 4-0 for the first time since 2004 and has spent time ranked for consecutive weeks (now up to No. 18) for the first time since 2007. Saturday, the Cavaliers will showcase their long, winding progress in front of the college football world against No. 10 Notre Dame.

"There are a lot of cool and positive things happening in your program," Mendenhall said. "There will always be another metric and this is the next one. So Notre Dame is a very good team, national prominence, powerful name. We're anxious to play.

"To have a 4-0 start and have some of the attention we're garnering just adds to the preparation and the urgency for us to continue to grow and learn."

The Cavaliers' steady rise through the ACC ranks during Mendenhall's first three years earned them preseason Coastal division favorite status. With Syracuse starting 2-2 after last year's 10-win season, Florida State still deep into total rebuild mode, Miami seeing more coaching turnover and Virginia Tech still searching for footing under Justin Fuente, the league is desperate to find an actual competitor for conference powerhouse Clemson.

Virginia certainly isn't there, yet, but under Mendenhall the Cavaliers have found stability with his unconventional manner to restore dignity to a program tumbling through mediocrity for the better part of the past decade.

With innovative analytics and metrics, an unheard-of player-rating system, grueling mental and physical demands, and an incredibly unique jersey number distribution operation, Mendenhall has Virginia playing competent football again.

"We're on the cusp of doing something great," redshirt junior cornerback Nick Grant said. "Last year was good, but everybody wants to be a part of something great and leave a legacy and say they were a part of that."

Starting over

When Mendenhall was considering the Virginia job in late 2015, he had three requirements: The program had to be "awful," the program had to care about something other than football and he wanted to be in a Power 5 conference.

"I got exactly that," Mendenhall told ESPN last week.

Mendenhall, who enjoyed a 99-43 record with 11 bowl appearances (six wins) during his 11 years as BYU head coach, inherited a Virginia program that had eight losing seasons in the last 10 years and had only crept as high as 16th in the AP Poll during that span. Predecessor Mike London had been fired after four straight losing seasons and just one bowl appearance, a 43-24 drubbing by Auburn in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl.

A rebuild was a massive undertaking for a football program lingering in the shadows of the much more successful Olympic sports on campus. Basketball, men's and women's soccer, lacrosse, baseball -- they all have more clout than football at UVA. Mendenhall understood that while the core of his program would be based on the academic-first, entitlement-never philosophy that worked so well at BYU, but he needed to dig deeper to rescue Virginia.

During his first meeting with his new team, Mendenhall remembers being shaken by the environment. There was no direct eye contact from players. Their body language said they were in despair and they didn't want to play.

"This was a football team that had no interest in playing football," Mendenhall said.

As everything he prepared to say vanished from his mind, the simple idea immediately formed that anything these players got, they had to work so hard for that they'd appreciate it and value it. Mendenhall wanted them to feel lucky enough to practice, lucky enough to put on a jersey and then lucky enough to have a number. He said that all this literally popped into his head when he was getting ready to speak. Go figure.

Mendenhall painstakingly researched all the best practices on human performance and human development, and all the most powerful predictors for growth and progress to create value systems within his program to promote adequate growth.

Mendenhall despises the college football gear culture, one that showers players with as much swag as possible on Day 1. To him, any gear is earned, not expected, so he created a color-coordinated player rating system based on the color of workout shirts players would be given during seven-week cycles, depending on how they performed in various lifts, agility, jumping and conditioning drills. Mendenhall based the system on the martial arts belt scale and every player would begin with a plain white shirt, with the goal of jumping to gray, orange, blue, and finally different levels of black.

White: Below average
Gray: Average
Orange: Decent
Blue: Might be stud
Black: You're a badass

To graduate from colors, players have to meet certain numbers during their workouts, but even after that, they're sent on a "rite of passage" that features different weight packs to be worn through stadium steps and "mountains to climb" before they can grab their new color.

"It's amazing what a T-shirt means once they've done all that," Mendenhall said. "It's a big deal."

The color scheme is a transparent way of showing players exactly where they -- and the team -- stand and coaches design their schemes and strategies to leverage the colors.

"If our entire team is in gray, which is average, that doesn't indicate a healthy or dominant program," Mendenhall said.

"They know every day when they put on their gear what color they are, whether they're an average performer -- which would be a Group of 5 level."

Mendenhall also created a jersey number selection process based on merit. Instead of players picking their numbers as they pleased, they are earned through performances during lifts, in the classroom, during practices, at offseason workouts and through community work.

Numbers reset after each season and the picking process begins two weeks into fall camp. Mendenhall also gives all of the power to his players. A group of team leaders form the Task Unit Leaders -- a term taken from the military Special Forces -- to deliberate by ranking the players 1-30 for the number picking order each of the last three weeks of camp.

Numbers can be earned during the season, but are never duplicated, and unless you're issued a loner number, you don't play without one. Again, coaches can disagree, but have zero say in who gets to pick a number and in what order. It's completely player-driven.

"So if Coach Mendenhall loves a certain player and thinks he should start, but the guys don't think he's earned his number through offseason workouts, practice, performance, how he handles himself, then he doesn't get his number," said junior linebacker Charles Snowden, who is on the task unit and went from No. 38 as a freshman to No. 11 the last two years.

"Your teammates know better than the coaches. I know what everyone at their best looks like and I know when dudes are BSing." "We as players recognize who's important to the program and the culture," said junior receiver Terrell Jana, who is a part of the task unit.

Slow progress

Shirts and numbers couldn't stop Virginia from the inevitable disaster that Year 1 was with Mendenhall. Only around 30 players qualified physically for the first day of spring practice, and his grueling offseason workouts and fast-paced practices wore guys down both mentally and physically.

It took the team six weeks before it could lift in the offseason because it couldn't correctly go through the warm-up.

Mendenhall wanted to create crisis and push his players to the point of breaking as much as he could to toughen a team still drenched in the residue left by the last coaching staff.

Based on his roster alone and the projected growth he thought players would make throughout the season, Mendenhall expected to have a bowl team. What he got was a 2-10 mess that kicked the season off with an embarrassing 37-20 home loss to Richmond.

Any sort of confidence in a successful season vanished when players and coaches realized how devoid of talent and heart this football team truly was.

"It wasn't good," said defensive coordinator Nick Howell, who followed Mendenhall from BYU. "I don't think it really hit me until Richmond kicked our ass in the first game. They didn't just beat us, they smashed us.

"You could clearly tell that we had way better guys at BYU, but you're hopeful. The reality hit when we got beat bad by a team that shouldn't have better talent than we have. They clearly had better talent than we had. Everything about them was better."

Virginia went 1-5 at home that season and lost seven games by double-digits, including closing the year with a 52-10 loss to rival Virginia Tech.

"It was hard, honestly, because we weren't seeing the benefits that we felt like we were putting in," senior cornerback Bryce Hall said. Mendenhall equated his first season to a business covered in graffiti with the windows boarded up and a chain link fence around it, but he didn't waver in his approach. Practices were tougher, academics became even more of a priority and any shred of entitlement with anyone was exterminated.

Grant, who didn't play in 2016, said that players weren't recognized on campus and rarely admitted to being on the football team out of embarrassment.

But that humiliation and anger manifested itself into something positive for the team. With the onus on them, players attacked their winter workouts and eventually spring practice with a critical sense of urgency.

A mass exodus of players after that first year created an even cleaner slate for the Cavaliers, who were buying into Mendenhall's plan, even if it was a slow burn.

"It was only a matter of time that things were going to turn around," Grant said. "After my first season, we had 15, 20 people quit or transfer. Everything that had been going on for so long built up at Virginia had been slowly weeding itself out, so we were becoming a real team."

More players hit color goals in Year 2, and the race for jersey numbers intensified. Virginia jumped to a six wins in 2017, but lost to Navy 49-7 in the Military Bowl.

Year 3 welcomed eight wins and a 28-0 win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl. Mendenhall's metaphorical business was now getting attention from investors.

"You gotta go through the crappy stuff together," Howell said. "You gotta do something that you don't want to do with a group together and find a way through it. As we've come here to Virginia from where we were previously, there's been plenty of opportunities to go through things that are challenging together to build this program."

Football second

Last Saturday's scare against Old Dominion showed the flaws Virginia is still working through, but there's unquestioned growth in Charlottesville. Last summer, Mendenhall said he had 27 ACC-caliber players, according to how many players were orange or above on his gear color scheme. As of the Old Dominion game, that number was up to 37, including six players in black.

Hall said the comeback win over Florida State -- a team coaches and players said had a distinct talent advantage -- showed Mendenhall's "will before skill" mantra come to fruition.

And this recent win displayed a want from a team admittedly exhausted from the week before that had been lacking in the program for years.

"It really shows our resilience," Snowden said, "getting punched in the mouth early on and then battling back and playing the way we did in the second half. I think it's a testament to our preparation and our training and our coaching staff and the players."

That preparation and training have come in a unique way. The earning of gear is one thing, but Mendenhall has made academics the priority over football at a school where the average incoming GPA is around 4.3 with an ACT of 31 and SAT of 1365.

From practices to workouts to the various book reviews and quizzes he'll have for players, Mendenhall's system is tailored around the idea that a football-first mentality at universities -- and in society -- is a flawed paradigm.

Howell, who has been a part of Mendenhall's staff for 13 years, says that his boss "does not give two craps about talent," so signing five-stars isn't a priority. He'd rather turn one away than sign someone not committed to approaching football as a secondary way of life. Mendenhall wants to develop people, who happen to play football.

"My job is to teach life principles through football," he said. "I like running a program in a manner that's preparatory for a successful life, so they can smile at the challenges and adversity that comes their way and they're not expecting anything to be given to them.

"It doesn't mean that we'll win, it doesn't mean that I'll stay or I won't get fired. And if I get fired, and we don't win doing it that way, I'm OK with that because of the interaction and the message we're conveying to players every day and what they're learning, I think it's more powerful."

Mendenhall says his methods could be considered outdated, backward or even odd, but, so far, they're working. Even though some long-time assistants of Mendenhall's originally questioned his methods, they've grown to understand that at institutions like Virginia and BYU -- which have strict, non-football components to their universities -- it's the only way to do things.

Mendenhall and those close to him realize his methods wouldn't work at an Alabama or Clemson because playoff berths and revenue aren't at the forefront of his mind.

"I don't think I'm the most desirable coach for most programs," he said.

But the transformations at BYU and Virginia show that his unconventional ways work under the right circumstances.

Here's Virginia, a program with just one 10-win season in its 116-year history, banging on the door of national relevancy with the Irish in front of it.

To step through that door, winning a game like Saturday's is important.

"We've faced every challenge that you could possibly face as a program," Grant said. "We're primed to take the next step onto the stage. We're ready for that next step."