How stepping away from football is bringing Bronco Mendenhall closer to the game

IT'S A MONDAY afternoon in late May, and for the first time in more than 30 years, Bronco Mendenhall isn't working the phones with recruits or planning staff meetings. Instead, he's in his truck, boots and spurs on, waiting out a rainstorm.

Mendenhall moved west this spring, a return to his roots after he abruptly resigned as head football coach at Virginia, trailering his cadre of horses and five truckloads of gear and supplies with him to Montana. It has been a whirlwind. He's overseeing concurrent construction projects -- a new home on a quiet lake that he and his wife, Holly, have dreamed of for years, and, about 20 minutes away, a sprawling, 80-acre ranch for those horses. He rides and ropes nearly every day. He's also training for two half-Iron Man competitions (swimming, biking and running), while fielding calls on business ventures and teaching opportunities and a host of other ideas for "what comes next."

But right now, he's burning daylight, and still has two horses in need of riding.

"And I haven't even been out fly-fishing today," he said.

If that all sounds like the dream itinerary for someone who has left his past life (and an annual salary of $4.25 million) in his rearview mirror in search of meaning off the grid -- well, that's sort of the point.

The Mendenhalls have been slowly plotting this adventure for decades, and in the hours after his Virginia team lost its regular-season finale to rival Virginia Tech last November, Mendenhall decided it was time to live the dream.

"It's just been breathtaking so far," said Mendenhall, 56. "Most of [the coaches] who've called me are saying, 'Man, we think you've got this right.'"

In Mendenhall's farewell, many around college football saw another example of a coach burned out by the new world order. Name, image and likeness rules, the transfer portal and realignment turned the old model on its head, and the new landscape has pushed coaches to the brink of -- or, perhaps, well past -- exhaustion. So, of course he would leave.

It's a logical conclusion. But it's not accurate.

In the coaching fraternity, Mendenhall is something of a unicorn, a student as much as a teacher, obsessed with philosophy, leadership, religion and happiness. Mendenhall could effectively host TED talks on a dozen different subjects, and he views the world differently than almost any other coach, so much so that there's a book ("Running into the Wind," published in 2012) about his approach to football and leadership. In this moment, he saw an opportunity -- not to run from new challenges, but to embrace "maximum renewal" -- a chance to fulfill promises made to Holly, to take a deep breath, to see what life away from football might be like.

And the funny thing is, seven months into that post-football life, as he contemplates the future, he keeps thinking that all those changes, all those new demands on coaches, they might just be the reason he wants to get back into it.

"There are so many ways to look at this in terms of challenges and reasons to get out," Mendenhall said. "But with that, there's new opportunities to really make a difference in terms of stability and emphasis and purpose. There might be people leaving the profession, and I might be one of the people running back in."

DOWN FIVE WITH less than three minutes to play, Virginia had four plays from the Hokies' 11-yard line, but a 2-yard run and three straight incompletions doomed the drive. Less than 24 hours later, Mendenhall was in his office pondering the future.

What does success look like at Virginia? How can he push the team to get better? How long will that take? What resources does he have at his disposal to make it happen?

Mendenhall assesses situations like an algorithm, processing the same questions over and over, adding new information as it becomes available, then producing the optimal response. Every day, every game, every season, the algorithm runs again. This time, it spit out an unexpected answer: He needed a break.

"I chose intentionally not to use the word retirement because I never viewed it as that," Mendenhall said. "It was to reframe what and how we're going to do it and why we're going to do it and to make sure Holly and I were unified in doing it."

When Mendenhall first got into coaching 33 years ago, he didn't have a plan. He came from a sports-obsessed family, and he had played football in college, so why not jump into coaching? It was less a passion than the most logical thing to do.

Mendenhall's first coaching job was as a graduate assistant at Oregon State in 1989, the same school at which he had been a team captain as a safety his senior season, and in those early days, he was obsessive. He parked his car on campus that August, and he moved into his office full time, storing his clothes in a filing cabinet and sleeping on a roll-out foam mattress on the floor. When the season ended that December, he couldn't find his car. He reported it stolen, and after the students moved out a few days later, campus police found it parked in the same spot he had left it in August.

That obsession translated to success on the field. After a decade as an assistant at Oregon State, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico and BYU, Mendenhall landed the Cougars' head-coaching job in 2005, and after a 6-6 season his first year, BYU posted back-to-back 11-2 campaigns. Mendenhall was an instant success, and yet he felt deflated.

That was the first time Mendenhall decided to resign.

Truth is, Mendenhall was never sure he even wanted to coach football. He's an introvert, and it's an entertainer's job. He's quiet and considered, and it's a world often dominated by whoever yells the loudest. He's a voracious reader in search of any new twist on leadership or team-building or personal development, but college football can be reticent of new ideas. He got into coaching almost by default, and he had never stopped to consider whether this was actually what he wanted out of his life.

He called Holly, and said he was ready to find another path.

She offered a succinct response: "No."

It was too soon to walk away from something this big, she told him. He didn't need to quit his job at BYU. He just needed to find meaning in something more than the wins and losses.

That offseason, Mendenhall attended a weekend retreat with Dr. James Loehr, a renowned sports psychologist. Shortly after arrival, Loehr cornered Mendenhall and posed a question: Who are you? Take away the job and the title and the money, and what is left?

That weekend, Mendenhall wrote out what would come to be his core beliefs on the job. He still has it on his screen saver, and he rereads it regularly: Learning, teaching, serving, developing, helping.

"What really became clear is that the daily interaction with young people, and the influence to help shape and develop and teach and mentor -- there's no price I can put on that," Mendenhall said. "It is just the absolute, most magical thing that I've experienced in my professional career."

Mendenhall not only stuck it out at BYU, but he continued to flourish. He leaned into the things that made him different. The social demands of coaching -- media sessions, hobnobbing with boosters -- can be exhausting for him, so he's careful to take time to refresh with meditation or a ride on his horses. He's competitive, of course, but he decided the wins weren't what drove him. Success on the field earned him credibility, but what he did with that -- the lessons he taught, the values he instilled in players -- that's what mattered to him. And he's a fixer by nature. He needs the challenge. That's why, after another eight winning seasons at BYU, he left for the Virginia job, taking over a program with no clear direction, and building something new with the knowledge and perspective he'd gained at BYU.

The word he uses is "service," though he acknowledges the potential hypocrisy.

"It's hard to use that word and have it make sense in college football," Mendenhall said. "You can't say service appropriately and be making $4 million. How is that service or sacrifice? But it's the relationships with the young people, and seeing them grow and develop and strain and struggle and fall and get up and have successes and, and being involved in that. I think there's a mindset that is a cognitive choice that I find fulfillment in, and that makes a difference."

When the 2021 season ended, however, Mendenhall found himself reading those words again -- learning, teaching, serving, developing, helping. He endured an exhausting 2020 campaign due to COVID-19, when he said he struggled to balance "a moral decision" about his players' safety amid the pandemic with the economic ecosystem driven by football at Virginia. He had always relaxed by riding and roping with his sons, but now all three were out of the house -- Raeder and Breaker on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Cutter in school at BYU -- and he and Holly were officially empty nesters. He prized his time teaching his players, but the demands of the job kept pulling him away from those interactions.

Take away the job, the title, the money. Who am I?

For the first time in years, Mendenhall wasn't sure.

Again, he called Holly and told her he was ready to resign.

"It was a similar response," Mendenhall said, "just not quite as emphatic this time. There were lots of tears and uncertainty, but that forces you to probe deeper. And the picture has become so much clearer as a result of this."

On the Wednesday after the Virginia Tech game, he informed AD Carla Williams he planned to step down. On Thursday, he told Virginia president James Ryan. A month later, amid a COVID-19 outbreak in the Virginia locker room, the Cavaliers canceled their bowl game, and Mendenhall's time in Charlottesville was officially over.

YEARS BEFORE THEY actually met, Clark Lea was a student of the Tao of Bronco.

When Lea, now the head coach at Vanderbilt, got into the profession, he discovered what he felt was a kindred spirit in Mendenhall, who helmed exceptional teams at BYU in a way that, to Lea, felt genuine. When Lea was an assistant at Wake Forest, he read "Running into the Wind" and loved the message. When Lea moved on to become defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, he used Mendenhall's coaching strategies as a blueprint, even though he'd still never met the man.

"When I'd see what he was doing or listen to him in a press conference, I always connected with him," Lea said. "I identify as an introvert, and I recognize that in him too. We're both pretty cerebral, but his teams always played really hard. You saw him make an imprint on every play, but you never saw him yelling and screaming."

It wasn't until Lea landed the Vanderbilt job in 2020 that he finally connected with Mendenhall, who reached out to inquire about a job for one of his young graduate assistants.

"I'd been waiting for years on that call," Lea said.

That first conversation lasted for more than an hour, and the two stayed in touch throughout the 2021 season. In November, Mendenhall invited Lea out to Charlottesville for a meeting. Lea was set to visit Charlottesville that winter, just to chat and talk about coaching. Then Mendenhall stepped down, and Lea was shocked.

"I was planning on talking to the head coach at Virginia," Lea said. "Then I figured our conversation would get a little bit longer and a little bit better."

Mendenhall said he understands how the complaints about burnout can sound. Coaches are well-compensated. It's a job that has afforded him the opportunity to take time away, to build a ranch, to escape. But it's also a job that has forced him to make hard choices about playing through a pandemic and is increasingly driven by money over anything else. Mendenhall isn't mad, he said, but he's curious and using his time away to reevaluate the landscape. He sees NIL as a learning opportunity for athletes. He sees the transfer portal as a means for athletes to maximize their opportunities. He sees an opportunity to use the new status quo to challenge his philosophy and find new ways to connect with his players. He just hasn't quite figured out the blueprint yet.

Another Mendenhall admirer, Wake Forest's Dave Clawson, recalled a conversation he had with former Ohio coach Frank Solich years earlier. Solich had been fired at Nebraska, and in the year before he accepted the job at Ohio, he reevaluated his approach to coaching.

"If every coach had the luxury of that year [off]," Clawson said, "he just talked about how much he learned about football. Because of the schedule, you never get a chance to reflect."

So Mendenhall isn't exactly missing the job, he said. There's plenty to keep him occupied in Montana. But he misses the people, the relationships, the opportunity to share his message with young people who might benefit from it.

"There's some people who take that year and they're done," Clawson said. "And there's other people who take that year and get back, and they come back in a much healthier mind space."

IT'S LATE JUNE, and Mendenhall is on vacation from his vacation. He's in Mexico. He doesn't want to say exactly where because he enjoys his privacy and, frankly, this spot is too good to risk it becoming a trendy destination on a travel site. He's there on a surfing trip with Holly and Cutter.

Mendenhall took up surfing while an assistant at New Mexico. On beach trips with the family, he'd often tell Holly how much he envied the guys out on boards, spending their days riding waves. When he came home from the Lobos' final recruiting camp one summer, he found a bag packed with an envelope attached. Inside was a plane ticket and a letter from Holly. She had enrolled him in Izzy Paskowitz's surf camp in San Clemente, California -- a weeklong surfing immersion that featured Mendenhall, some teenagers, and a handful of "midlife crisis guys."

Still, the experience took hold, and surfing became a passion. At BYU, he recruited heavily in Orange County, California, and on visits, he would wake up early to get some time on the waves, change clothes in his car for recruiting meetings at a handful of high schools, then head back to the beach with his board again, making more recruiting calls from his car. It became part of that balance he needed -- the extroverted sales pitch to recruits followed by the introvert's need to recharge on the ocean.

"I always come out of the water feeling better," Mendenhall said of surfing.

In a way, that's how Mendenhall feels now, emerging from the water refreshed and optimistic. He's still finding his footing in this semiretired, post-football world that doesn't feel altogether solid, but he feels revitalized, his sense of purpose more refined.

Mendenhall slips back into coaching mode easily, with Holly often reminding him that she's not his receptionist and the boys aren't his players. He still studies every day too, Holly said, reading books he thinks might make him a better coach before heading off to feed the horses or fix a tractor. He has never minded the work.

"Bronco likes a challenge," she said. "He's a fixer. And when he sees issues like that, he's not deterred by it. I think he sees it as a challenge and somewhere he can make a difference."

What lies ahead, however, requires another analogy. Mendenhall compares it to being a smokejumper -- the elite squad of firefighters who parachute into a blaze as the people below evacuate. The college football world is on fire at the moment.

"In so many ways, our profession needs Bronco right now," Lea said. "There's a real void right now between what our profession has been and what it's slowly becoming."

Mendenhall isn't checking off days on the calendar before he can take a new job. Holly said she's genuinely unsure what he'll do next, and he's making no promises. But Mendenhall wants to make an impact. He wants to shape the lives of young people. He's certain about that. Maybe he could do it working for a consulting firm or teaching classes. He has had offers.

Or maybe, he said, he needs to jump back into the fire.

"If you're truly interested in developing young people, it's hard to find a platform that is as impactful as college athletics," Mendenhall said. "And granted, that landscape is changing -- and changing rapidly."

But take away the money and the title and the pressure to win at all costs. What's left?

"As a head coach," he said, "the decisions you make to construct the culture and the values of your program can still resonate in a way that's truly authentic and real."

Mendenhall is still asking himself what comes next, but the answer he keeps coming back to is that as much as the sport has changed -- and keeps changing -- there's really no other platform like college football to make the kind of impact he wants to make.

"With distance comes clarity," Mendenhall said. "[Walking away] is kind of like dying without being dead and seeing who comes to your funeral. Those relationships are where all the substance came."