Bronco Mendenhall said the thought that it was time to do something else first came to him the day after his team’s dispiriting loss to Virginia Tech.
In the ensuing days, Virginia’s coach considered other solutions, but as the week progressed he felt more clarity. He announced Thursday he‘s stepping down.
Mendenhall will coach the Cavaliers in their bowl game, then abruptly end a six-year tenure during which “earned, not given” became a mantra for the program, and an upward trajectory slowed considerably the last two years.
“I would love to say there’s been this buildup and a long amount of epiphanies and thought, 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,” Mendenhall said in a hastily organized conference call with reporters.
The decision was his and his alone, Mendenhall said, adding that athletic director Carla Williams and university president Jim Ryan asked him to stay.
“It’s just a chance after 31 years straight to step back … and reinvent myself and our family and our purpose,” the 55-year-old Mendenhall said.
“Holly, my wife, is a little shocked, too,” he said.
With two of his children on mission trips for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the third heading to college in January, Mendenhall said he looks forward to spending time with his wife without what he called “the rhythm of a football season” and discovering his next path.
He did not rule out coaching again some day.
“This isn’t to break and pause and then become irrelevant. This is actually to break and pause to then become hopefully more impactful in helping and developing and teaching and serving others is what I’m hopeful,” he said. “So I’m excited about that. What is it going to look like? I don’t know.”
Mendenhall said he told his staff at 4:45 p.m. EST and his team at 5 p.m. before getting on the call with reporters at 5:30 p.m.
The team’s reaction?
“They had similar reactions, tears, shock, sadness, disbelief, yeah, and it’s going to take time to process,” he said.
Mendenhall is 36-38 at Virginia and led the Cavaliers to four bowl appearances their only Atlantic Coast Conference title game appearance two years ago. Virginia also snapped a 15-game losing streak against rival Virginia Tech in 2019, but lost its last four games this season, including Saturday’s 29-24 defeat to the Hokies.
The Cavaliers finished the regular season 6-6. Mendenhall finalized his decision four days later.
“This is a personal and just bigger picture — that’s how I think — decision,” he said, adding that the losing streak was not really a factor in his choice.
The Hokies played that game with an interim coach. They introduced former Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry as their new coach Thursday.
“The next journey will be uncovered as we go, and hard to uncover it if there’s not a pause and contemplation and reflection, so that’s what I’m choosing to do,” Mendenhall said.
He said he chose to make the announcement now in the hope that the attention can be placed back on the team and its bowl preparations. The Cavaliers will find out their bowl destination on Sunday.
Mendenhall came to Virginia after 11 seasons as coach at BYU. That, too, was a surprising move. The Utah native was 99-43 with the Cougars.
Virginia lost to Richmond of the Championship Subdivision, 37-20, in his first game, an outcome that revealed to him the tougher-than-he-imagined task ahead. The Cavaliers finished the following regular season 6-6 to end a bowl drought, but lost 49-7 to Navy in the Military Bowl. They opted not to participate in a bowl last season.
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