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Provo • Coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged he has made some mistakes in his sixth season that have led to the BYU football program's worst start since 1973, including the indecision over who should be the starting quarterback and a preseason choice to almost entirely neglect the defense he crafted to concentrate on other areas, such as special teams.
Mendenhall couldn't fire himself, obviously.
But he did fire defensive coordinator Jaime Hill, Mendenhall said Monday, because of reasons not related to Hill's performance as much as "core differences in leadership philosophy" and the head coach's desire to "make a real difference in our program maybe at a deeper level" with more involvement in the defense.
"As a leader, there are pivotal times when there become, you can call them feelings, instincts, promptings, whatever you would like," Mendenhall said. "And that's exactly what I felt, and I chose to act on it immediately. I don't expect it to be popular with anyone, other than I think I did the right thing for myself and our program, and it certainly was not easy."
Hill said hours after he was fired Saturday that he was a "scapegoat" for the Cougars' 1-4 start. Mendenhall called that assessment inaccurate and said there was "more to it" than the defense's performance it ranks last in the country (120th) in rushing defense and 101st in scoring defense.
The sudden move by a coach whose tenure has been marked by a measured, calm and consistent approach and BYU's first loss to Utah State in 17 years has made it appear to some that the program that won 43 games in four previous seasons is in a state of disarray, perhaps even crumbling.
With a game against favored San Diego State (3-1) on Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium on the horizon, followed by a road trip to No. 5 TCU, prospects for a quick turnaround appear slim.
Although BYU's offense has been as dreadful as its defense, perhaps even more so, Mendenhall said he is not currently considering more coaching changes, other than the ones he outlined already. Offensive coordinator Robert Anae's unit is averaging just 15.2 points per game, 114th in the country, and is No. 96 in total offense (312.6 ypg.).
Linebackers coach Nick Howell will become the secondary coach, while graduate assistant Kelly Poppinga has been promoted to outside linebackers coach.
"I will evaluate everything in our program ongoing through the rest of this year," Mendenhall said. "At the end of each season I always have staff reviews with each coach. And I also pull our program apart, and reassemble it, and see what needs to be worked on."
Mendenhall defended the rare firing of a coach in the middle of a season as being more about his own need to be more involved with the defense than with anything Hill did or said. However, several former players have said Hill's confrontational style, mood swings, resistance to suggestions from other coaches and frequent run-ins with players had worn on Mendenhall's nerves the past few seasons.
"I need to recapture the heart and soul of this team, and I am trying to position myself in a place where I can be most effective doing that," Mendenhall said.
The coach acknowledged that Hill was given the option of resigning or being fired. He said to have kept Hill on board in a lesser capacity perhaps as the secondary coach would have been counterproductive.
"I didn't think that would be effective again, with just some fundamental leadership philosophical differences," Mendenhall said.
Defensive end Vic So'oto and offensive tackle Matt Reynolds both said the move caught them by surprise, but expressed confidence that the move won't split the team.
With Mendenhall coaching the defense, So'oto said, "We know that we are going to have to bring it. … We will probably go full-go a couple times this week" in practice.
At any rate, Mendenhall will sell the sudden change as the chance for a new beginning to the season that started with a promising 23-17 win over Washington, but has spiraled downward since then.
"I think there's a cleanness, or a fresh start, kind of in this," Mendenhall said. " … Not that you just say that [start] never happened. But to say from now on these are all conference games … there is kind of a clean closure to the first part of the season, and maybe a new beginning, or a chance to recommit to what our future might look like."
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Worst BYU football starts in the past 50 years
Year Head coach Start Comment
2010 Bronco Mendenhall 1-4 Cougars rank dead last in country in rushing defense
2005 Bronco Mendenhall 1-3 Won five of next six games and finished 6-6
1991 LaVell Edwards 0-3 Rebounded after losses to Florida State, UCLA, Penn State to go 8-3-2
1975 LaVell Edwards 0-3 Won next three games, finished with 6-5 record
1974 LaVell Edwards 0-3-1 Won next seven before falling to Oklahoma State in bowl game
1973 LaVell Edwards 1-5 Finished 5-6 season with 63-0 win over UTEP
1970 Tommy Hudspeth 1-5 Turned it around briefly, then lost last three to finish 3-8
1963 Hal Mitchell 1-8 Lone win in the stretch was a 27-0 shutout of Montana in third game